One of the most depressing things to witness for the classic horror fan is the seemingly endless procession of mediocre rubbish that the great Bela Lugosi ended up appearing in, and Zombies on Broadway, while not the worst, has little to redeem it.
‘Zombies on Broadway’ was directed by Gordon M. Douglas and written by Robert Kent and Lawrence Kimble. The film was released as a slapstick-style comedy (a horror film this is not) and the taglines that appeared on the posters and lobby cards should tell you all you need to know about what you are getting into: “Two zanies on a zombie hunt!“, and “Hee! Hee! What ghoulish glee!“.
The film follows Jerry Miles and Mike Strager, a pair of Broadway promoters who make a foolish promise to a mobster turned nightclub owner that they will provide a real zombie for the opening night of his new club, The Zombie Hut. The characters are played by Wally Brown and Alan Carney doing their best Abbott and Costello impression, and seeing them really makes you yearn for the actual Abbott and Costello.
First things first, if The Zombie Hut seems a thoroughly unsexy name for a nightclub and the idea of bringing a zombie into any crowded room seems a pretty dumb one, bear in mind that this is pre-Romero. Zombies before Night of the Living Dead (1968) were mostly vacant faced, well behaved and walked around in a trance. They were based on voodoo mythology (or at least Hollywood’s version of it), they did not try to kill anyone, they did not eat flesh, and pretty girls were a very popular choice for zombies.
Probably the best exemplar of this type of zombie film is RKO’s exceptional I Walked With a Zombie, part of Val Lewton’s low budget horror cycle and a perennially underrated film because of its ill-chosen title. Zombies on Broadway is a loose spoof of Lewton’s film, it not only takes place on the same island of San Sebastian, where our idiot heroes travel in search of their zombie, but also features Darby Jones reprising his zombie role from the earlier film.
On the island Lugosi makes his appearance as a mad scientist (‘Not very crazy’) who is trying to make people into zombies. Why he’s doing this is never made entirely clear but he is struggling to replicate with science what the natives achieve with voodoo magic, and he latches onto Miles and Strager as possible subjects for his experiments. Lugosi creates his zombies (although technically it is ‘mind control’ as his victims aren’t really dead) by administering a serum he has developed – kind of like a 1940s Re-Animator.
What follows is a chain of predictable plot points, even more predictable jokes and the requisite slapstick. Also a scene of Bela Lugosi being outwitted by a monkey that just makes you want to cry. As you have to expect in films of this era and with this subject matter there’s also the sort of casual racism that jars unpleasantly with any modern audience.
The only real up point in the whole affair is the heroine, Jean La Danse, played by Anne Jeffreys (who went on to have a long career including a 10 year stint in General Hospital). When Jean is introduced it is as a singer and dancer in a club and you naturally expect her to be the dumb but pretty girl, familiar in this type of film and only there so the men in the audience have something to look at. But actually Jean has more intelligence and resourcefulness than either of the two heroes; it’s only thanks to her that any of them get out alive. More importantly and more unusually, she does get a share in the comedy. It’s still all too common today to have comedy films centred around funny men while the women are sensible, practical and dull. The prat-falling in Zombies on Broadway may go to the male leads but Jean has more wit, which actually makes her the stand out.
That said, the bottom line is that this film isn’t funny enough by half. The best way to look at it is as a Scary Movie for the 1940s; a spoof of a far better film that is neither clever nor amusing enough to justify its existence.
|Zombies on Broadway at Amazon|
|Zombies on Broadway theatrical posters at Amazon|