Zombies on Broadway/Loonies on Broadway (1945) **
Just to demonstrate that Universal was not the only studio to turn to conscious self-parody during the waning days of the second Hollywood horror boom, I give you RKO’s Zombies on Broadway. Notable enough for being a bit more entertaining than the typical 40’s horror comedy, Zombies on Broadway becomes even more worthy of attention in light of the ongoing rivalry in those days between RKO and Universal as producers of fright films. Universal was by far the more conservative production house, and although RKO’s horror movies weren’t always necessarily better, they were invariably bolder and more innovative. And so consider Zombies on Broadway, which injected RKO’s in-house Abbott and Costello wannabes into a parodic take on I Walked with a Zombie, three years before Universal famously spoofed their own monster lineup in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Ostensibly reformed mobster Ace Miller (Sheldon Leonard, from Ouanga and Sinbad the Sailor) is opening up a new nightclub on Broadway, to be called the Zombie Hut (Launching an exotica bar in 1945? Clearly Miller is what you call an early adopter.), and the whole city is saturated with advertising— airplanes drop thousands of handbills, sign-bearing vans cruise the streets blaring come-ons over loudspeakers, who knows what else. The masterminds behind all this promotional carpet bombing are Jerry Miles and Mike Streger (Wally Brown and Allan Carney, who may be playing the same characters as in the earlier RKO comedies Adventures of a Rookie and Rookies in Burma), of the eponymous marketing firm Miles & Streger, and Miller is very pleased with the both of them. There’s one thing he’s not quite sure about, though— all the ads Miller has seen promise the presence of an authentic zombie on opening night, and Ace doesn’t remember ordering one of those. Miles tells him not to worry. Sure, the “zombie” is a fake (in fact, he’s really a prize fighter named Sam [Martin Wilkins, of Voodoo Woman and The Vampire’s Ghost]), but has Miller ever seen the real thing? Has anybody else in New York? Alright, then. The admen are much more interested in talking about Streger’s big radio coup. Mike has convinced Douglas Walker (Louis Jean Heydt), apparently the city’s most respected announcer, to mention the Zombie Hut on the air, and the publicity isn’t going to cost Ace a dime. This is not nearly the stroke of genius Streger believes it to be, however. Walker and Miller go way back, you see, and their relationship is hardly a friendly one. Honestly, it would not be unfair to say that Walker has had it in for Ace for years, and the announcer relishes this official authorization to tell the whole city what a fraud and a criminal he thinks Miller is. What’s more, Walker knows Sam from covering his boxing matches, so using him as the zombie is the surest way for Miller to get caught trying to scam the public. Ace’s head goons, Gus (Frank Jenks) and Bennie (Torture Ship’s Russell Hopton), believe the best thing for it is to arrange a little “suicide” for the advertisers who have so thoroughly wrecked the Zombie Hut’s grand opening, but Miles swears that he can find Miller a real zombie.
That, needless to say, is going to be a pretty tall order in New York City, especially since neither Jerry nor Mike is entirely clear on what exactly a zombie is. On Streger’s suggestion, the pair head over to the International Museum; it’s after hours, but by passing themselves off as scientists, they get the janitor (Nick Stewart, doing his best Mantan Moreland impersonation) to let them in to speak with the curator. Professor Hopkins (Ian Wolfe, from Mad Love and Bedlam) is a great, big weirdo, and the admen and janitor alike find his company extremely unnerving, but he does at least give Jerry and Mike some ideas regarding what zombies are and how and where to find one. The island of San Sebastian, the professor says, was the last known location of Dr. Paul Renault, the world’s foremost authority on the subjects of voodoo and the living dead. No one has heard from Renault in years, however, and he may no longer be alive. That’s more than enough for Miles and Streger. They’d sooner skip town and rebuild their careers somewhere else than follow a vanished scientist to a remote island where the dead walk. But unfortunately for Jerry and Mike, Ace had them followed. By the time they get back to their apartment to pack their bags for the escape, Miller is there waiting for them with boarding passes on the next ship out to San Sebastian.
San Sebastian is practically indistinguishable from I Walked with a Zombie’s similarly named island of St. Sebastian. It even has a friendly calypso singer (Sir Lancelot, from The Curse of the Cat People, rehashing his I Walked with a Zombie routine) who greets tourists at the docks to serenade them plot-specifically. More ominously, there’s also a man named Joseph (Joseph Vitale) spying on our heroes’ arrival. No sooner have the publicists disembarked than he pays somebody to figure out what they want and where they’re going. Joseph turns out to be employed by San Sebastian’s resident mad scientist (Bela Lugosi), who is seeking a way to reproduce by scientific means what the local voodoo priests can do with their magic. I doubt you really need to be told that this is none other than Dr. Paul Renault. Thus far, he’s achieved a certain amount of success, having devised a drug that stops all life processes and then returns the subject to limited consciousness as a perfectly controllable slave, but the effect wears off after a day or two at most. By contrast, Renault has had Kolaga (Darby Jones, also reprising his I Walked with a Zombie role in all but name), the zombie he acquired from a tribal witch-doctor, for some twenty years without seeing any decay of the body or reactivation of the mind. Evidently the reason why Joseph spends his afternoons on the docks looking for incoming travelers whom no one would miss is that Renault does not want to use the natives in his experiments. He never says just why, but I’m guessing it has something to do with keeping on the neighborhood voodoo cult’s good side.
Truth be told, none of Joseph’s cloak-and-dagger crap is necessary to uncover these latest newcomers’ business on San Sebastian, for Miles and Streger are perfectly happy to ask anyone and everyone on the island where they can get their hands on a zombie. They have the most success with Jean LaDance (Anne Jeffreys), the entertainer at the bar where they spend their first evening on San Sebastian. Jean wants to get off the island, and if the admen are willing to bring her with them when they leave, she’ll see what she can do in regard to finding them a walking corpse or two. The first place she takes them is understandably the stretch of forest where the cultists conduct their ceremonies, but the excursion doesn’t go exactly according to plan. Renault has sent Kolaga out to collect new guinea pigs, and the zombie kidnaps Jean while she is briefly separated from the men. Then Miles and Streger accidentally get sucked into a voodoo rite, and their flight from the natives leads them into Dr. Renault’s clutches as well.
Like most 1940’s horror comedies, Zombies on Broadway is only rarely funny, and derives not a single laugh from the antics of its star “comedians.” What makes it watchable is its occasional forays into situational humor, and the performances of its several straight men. Left to themselves, Wally Brown and Alan Carney are as awful as Abbott and Costello ever were, milking the same annoying “cowardly numbskull” shtick that had been the stock in trade of movies like this one since at least the 1920’s. But Bela Lugosi, Sheldon Leonard, and Louis Jean Heydt all conduct themselves as if they didn’t even know they were making a comedy, and so when ludicrous things happen around them, it has a fair chance of being funny. Just as the impeccably dignified John Cleese was always Monty Python’s most effective physical comedian, Lugosi’s deadly seriousness can wring a smile or a chuckle from material that Brown and Carney couldn’t sell to save their lives— witness Dr. Renault’s death-battle against the standard-issue comedic monkey if you doubt my words. It also helps that Darby Jones is only slightly less menacing as Kolaga than he was as Carrefour two years earlier. The bulging-eyes makeup looked better— by the standards of both realism and horrific effect— under the moody lighting favored by Jacques Tourneur (a point which should surprise absolutely no one), but there’s something inherently unnerving about a gauntly muscular six-and-a-half-foot man whose body seems to be composed primarily of awkward, gangling limbs, especially when he’s portraying an inarticulate walking corpse.