Early shame of cinema from 1936
How would you react if your Angkor tour guide told you the following story? A thousand years ago the Khmer kings turned their people into tireless and feelingless human machines, called them zombies, and sent them into war against their enemies and to work on the construction site of Angkor Wat. And, believe it or not, this ancient formula for zombifying people still exists and is misused for warfare in our days… Well, recommend your tour guide a psychiatrist and escape from him by tuk-tuk as fast as you can.
On the other hand: There is a video on youtube, that proves your guide’s theory. It’s called Revolt of the Zombies and is probably one of the worst movies ever made for cinema. The low-budget potboiler from 1936 was written and directed by Victor and Edward Halperin, who had invented a new subgenre with their horror film White Zombie (1932), starring Dracula-actor Bela Lugosi. Their follow-up, Supernatural (1933), was similarly groundbreaking and nearly as good. But Revolt of the Zombies contained everything to destroy the Halperins’ reputation with one strike.
In many ways, this soap opera with superstitious underpinnings is not a good movie. The story is crude, the acting stagey, the tone not even a tiny bit horrifying. If you want to experience it with your own eyes and ears: Revolt of the Zombies is in the public domain, can be distributed without regard to copyright laws and is avaiable everywhere on the internet for free.
The plot starts on the Franco-Austrian frontier during World War I. The French imported a few units of Cambodian troops from their colony to pick up the slack on subsidiary fronts while they’re busy fighting against the Germans elsewhere. The Cambodians are not under the command of a soldier, but of a monk named Tsiang (William Crowell), because his men are in fact zombies, created and controlled by a magical formula that was handed down from the ancient Khmer kings.
Tsiang’s invulnerable Cambodians capture an Austrian trench all by themselves, but instead of being happy, French general Duval (George Cleveland) worries about the future of the white race and wants to make sure that his formidable occult knowledge is never used again. After the war, General Duval forms an expedition and travels to Cambodia to find and destroy forever the so-called „Secret of the Zombies“ in the ruins of Angkor Wat.
And this is, where all the trouble starts: Revolt of the Zombies does not really take place in Cambodia so much as it takes place in front of exceptionally obvious giant photographs of the place. The Halperin brothers sent a camera crew to Angkor in 1935 to make some background shots for the film. Production in the US was behind schedule in January 1936 with no script complete. They began on 9 March with the shoot being finished later in the month. The movie was released in US cinemas in June 1936.
It is barely an hour long, but moves at a snail’s pace so it seems feature-length. The viewer may get some amusement from the faked studio shots, when people stand stock-still in front of the photos of Angkor Wat. Worst of all, there are no real Zombies in the movie. They call them zombies, but except for one early shot in which an Austrian soldier fires five bullets into a soldier’s chest without seeming to bother him at all, there is no indication that we are dealing with the walking dead. It seems to be simple matter of mind control.
Although he is not credited in the film, Bela Lugosi’s eyes appear in Revolt of the Zombies whenever zombifying powers are used in the film. These eyes were taken from the Halperin brothers’ earlier success movie White Zombie, which contains real Zombies and is – by far – is the better choice for your next DVD-night with fellow horror buffs.
Michael Scholten, Phnom Penh Post 31.08.2012
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