Following the failure of Revolt of the Zombies, the Halperins made their last interesting movie entitled Nation Aflame (1937). It turns a story by white supremacist Thomas Dixon (1864-1946 cerebral haemorrhage) of A Birth of a Nation fame on its head using several writers to produce an anti-racist film about founders of a new order called the Avenging Angels who wear hoods and robes… and, well, you get the picture.
Nation Aflame shows the possibility that the Ku Klux Klan was created by opportunists out to make money. Possibly even charging extra for their uniforms! Victor Halperin’s fortunes were on the slide following the lawsuit over Revolt of the Zombies and after Nation Aflame there were poor movies for poverty row studios such as Torture Ship (1939) and Buried Alive (1939). They lack any of Victor Halperin’s early distinction and he retired from making films in 1942.
To go back again into the Halperins and their final movie worthy of attention is Supernatural (1933), which was made between White Zombie and Revolt of the Zombies for Paramount.
It is a strange story, an almost ghost story about a death row murderess who upon being executed passes her spirit into the body of an unsuspecting heiress who knows a fake spiritualist who happened to blow the whistle on the murderess. So there!
Supernatural starts off with thunder and lightning and a chorus of wailing voices as the credit sequence continues with quotes from Confucius, Mohammed and Matthew 10:1.
Then we learn that Ruth Rogen (actress Vivienne Osborne 1896-1961) slayed three lovers, was found not insane and sold her story to the tabloids before she is about to be strapped to the electric chair.
“She might be the cause of people going insane,” says actor H.B. Warner (1876-1958) about people who commit copycat crimes when a criminal gets executed. “…Possessed by another personality… a powerful, malignant personality without a body of its own.”
It’s madness or the psychic realm again. The story is by White Zombie writer Garnett Weston but the script itself is credited to someone who helped write RKO’s Flying Down to Rio (1933). You can never really trust a writer’s credit on a film anyway as you never know who has done the real work. I would say that Weston contributed more to the script that he’s credited with due to the quality of the movie. But Victor Halperin was on a high as well.
The images are not on the scale of White Zombie, but it is Martinelli behind the cinematography again. He was a part of the Halperin’s finest hours in terms of their horror trilogy.
Carole Lombard (1908-42 plane crash) apparently hated working on this movie because she saw herself as a comedienne and Supernatural was hardly amusing material. She would score big the following year with Twentieth Century (1934) alongside John Barrymore and by the end of the 1930s would be one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood.
“Well, that closes that case,” says Randolph Scott (1898-1987 lung and heart ailments) over cigars after Ruth Rogen has been executed and one of the other men also argues that she’s not so dangerous anymore.
“She may be more dangerous now than when they had her locked in a cell,” says another.
Lombard’s brother is dead and a fake spiritualist is hoping to hook her and make some money as she is an heiress with a fortune.
“I’m very sensitive as well as being psychic,” says the “cheap faker” to Scott who also tells him that hostility creates static like in radio waves. The spiritualist is played by Alan Dinehart (1889-1944 heart failure) … but the cast is really irrelevant as the story takes a twist and Ruth Rogen is taken to doctor Warner’s laboratory… and as a storm rages outside, Carole is almost strangled by the spirit which soon takes a hold of her. Somehow Carole and Dinehart end up on her yacht at midnight drinking champagne. He thinks Carole sometimes looks like Ruth Rogen. It must be those eyes!
“You’re imagining things,” says Carole and there is that extra close-up of the eyes which are used again as they had been just as successfully in White Zombie.
In one climactic scene on the yacht when Scott breaks down a cabin door, there is the clear image of a man standing beside a camera. Don’t know how they missed that one, it’s plain as day. Is it Victor Halperin himself? The man is relaxed and almost posed as if it is another fake spiritualist behind the movie. It could just be a film crew member… It could even be cinematographer Martinelli! It’s one of the strange things in Supernatural.
Dinehart dies as he tries to flee the yacht and Ruth Rogen’s spirit is avenged releasing her hold on Carole. Then Carole’s guardian angel appears in the form of her late brother whose ghostly entity blows the pages of a magazine to an ad which recommends: Go to Bermuda for your honeymoon.
Cut Scott and Carole kissing and the Paramount logo. It would the height of the Halperin Brothers career if not quite on a par with White Zombie, it is certainly a more modern film.
By 1940, the zombie movie was no longer pure horror. It had been short-circuited into a kind of comedy horror with black servants as comedy relief, especially beginning with The Ghost Breakers (1940) with Willie Best (1916-62 cancer) and King of the Zombies (1941) with Manton Moreland (1902-73 cerebral haemorrhage) as the servants.
There’s a couple of old-fashioned chills to be found in the Bob Hope vehicle The Ghost Breakers which is still quite funny if you’re a fan of Hope’s humour.
But it is the quick-witted Moreland, who was Charlie Chan’s chauffeur in many a Monogram Chan movie, who helps break up the Nazi doctor’s – he’s from Austria just like Hitler – plan to get military secrets from stranded naval and army VIP’s on his Caribbean island in King of the Zombies. Moreland is the best thing about King of the Zombies which also features actress Anne Archer’s (1947-) father John Archer (1915-99 lung cancer). They share the same shaped brow!
A couple of years later and Monogram also released the Bela Lugosi, John Carradine (1906-88 multiple organ failure) and George Zucco (1886-1960 dementia and pneumonia) starrer Voodoo Man (1944). It features Lugosi as your usual madman who kidnaps female motorists to take home to use as zombie or trance-like specimens to transfer their brain energy to that of his comatose wife in the hope of resurrecting her mind. It’s cheap Monogram and if you like their kind of hokum, Voodoo Man may keep you interested.
It’s cut-rate compared to King of the Zombies but it does have voodoo hocus pocus intact even if it’s set in the United States. Carradine and Zucco barely appear.
Poor Bela, whether he was drug addicted by the stage due to back pain I don’t know but it ends with the self-referential line when the reporter delivers his “true” story to his editor at the end who asks who could be in the movie version.
“Why don’t you get that actor Bela Lugosi… it’s right up his alley.”
The previous year and Monogram had released Revenge of the Zombies (1943) as a follow-up to King of the Zombies. In fact, it’s a bit of a rehash written by the same screenwriter Edmond Kelso (1910-69). It has John Carradine on a Southern estate as a Nazi madman complete with goose-stepping zombies who “get picks and shovels and go to work”.
Manton Moreland is present again to save the day with comedy relief although it’s hard not to be amused as Carradine works on the corpse of his wife while she is wearing perfectly coiffed hair and high heel shoes. Straight from the funeral parlour! A quick blood transfusion later and the zombie lives!
Another plus factor is cult actress Veda Ann Borg (1915-73 cancer) who decorated several 1940s B-pictures and ended her career as Blind Nell Robertson in John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960). Anyway, Veda looks good and the film was apparently the first in a six-film contract for Moreland with Monogram – chiefly for the Chan films.
Bela Lugosi was supposed to star but after shooting was delayed, he was replaced by Carradine. It’s run of the mill and again King of the Zombies has more scope…
I briefly mentioned the classic Val Lewton production I Walked with a Zombie (1943) which is again set down Haiti way… But World War Two intervened in America and for some reason the zombie mill ended as more realistic horrors took place in the world and families knew the dead would never return to life. The cycle started by the Halperin Brothers had come to an end, reviving briefly with cheap flicks such as the comedy Zombies on Broadway (1945) which was one of the first send-ups or spoofs of an actual film as it used elements of I Walked with a Zombie. It is set on the same island of San Sebastian and features singer Sir Lancelot (1902-2001) playing the same character as well as Darby Jones (1910-86) playing the same zombie.
It is probably the best film by RKO’s answer to Abbott and Costello – Wally Brown (1904-61) and Alan Carney (1909-73) otherwise known as Brown and Carney. They made several movies together of tolerable quality but they were second-rate compared to Bud and Lou. Their last film was Genius at Work (1946) which was a title in search of a clever script which had the distinction of being the last film by Lionel Atwill (1885-1946 lung cancer). It also featured Bela Lugosi.
Back to zombies and Valley of the Zombies (1946) has a couple of good random lines such as: “I’ll put you back in the grave where you belong”. It is about a strange character played by Ian Keith (1899-1960) that lives off human blood transfusions while he embalms his victims. He’s a “peculiar party that has a passion for pickling” according to the police. With names like Ormand Murks and Lucifer Garland and several other wisecracks, this Republic Studios release is passable but has a poor reputation.
I should also mention Universal’s earlier The Mad Ghoul (1943) with George Zucco turning David Bruce (1914-76 heart attack) into a mindless ghoul or zombie using an ancient Mayan nerve gas. I like this one the best of this period and it is the only Universal film about zombies. I’m missing a few… but I’m sure the you get the idea many cheap and bad zombie films were made.
Later, there was a kind of revival with the zombie armies of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958) and Invisible Invaders (1959), the walking corpse of Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) and zombies used as a deterrent to buy real estate in the Boris Karloff film Voodoo Island (1957) and to protect diamonds on a sunken vessel in Zombies of Mora Tau (1957). And please don’t forget actor Tom Conway’s silly hat in Voodoo Woman (1957). Each have their own charms and bad movie pleasures but are hardly regarded as classics. Black and white film lovers of fifties trash will lap them up as cult items.
And so such were the zombies before the flesh eating kind introduced as ‘ghouls’ in Night of the Living Dead (1968) which spawned an ever-growing industry culminating with hit films such as Zombieland (2009) and World War Z (2013) and the tv series The Walking Dead… Zombies that some of us are, as we sit transfixed by the cinema and television screen!!