I believe it was Hubrisween Host Tim Lehnerer who pointed out that if you’re doing an A-Z challenge of horror movies, you are inevitably going to end up in zombie territory (especially if you’ve sworn to never watch Zaat! again). So it’s a good thing I recently came off my ten-year moratorium against zombie movies. I guess.
There is no denying there has been an absolute glut of zombie movies over the past decade and more, and though I expected everyone to get sick and tired of them, nooooooooo, they just got more insanely popular. The recent Walking Dead season premiere broke records. We’ve had a $200 million dollar zombie flick starring Brad Pitt, for God’s sake. George Romero had no idea what the hell he was starting when he was prepping a calling card to the motion picture industry back in 1968.
But what all this misses is that there was another zombie craze, back in the 1930s and extending into the 40s. Back before zombies started munching guts. Though nowhere near as prolific as their modern cousins, zombie movies were kicked off by the 1932 White Zombie, which four years later spawned a loose sequel, Revolt of the Zombies. The high point of this cycle is undeniably Jacques Tourneurs I Walked With a Zombie, and by 1945, it was high time for the zombie to be returned to his grave with a comedy, Zombies on Broadway, three years before Abbott & Costello would similarly put paid to the Universal Monsters.
Zombies on Broadway introduces us to the comedy team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney, who are pretty much in the mold of Abbott and Costello, though Brown’s Jerry Miles is more sympathetic than most of Bud Abbott’s screen characters (Brown and Carney were, in fact, known as “RKO’s answer to Abbott and Costello”). The two have been hired as press agents for Ace Miller (Sheldon Leonard), a gangster who’s gone semi-legit and is opening a voodoo-themed night club called The Zombie Hut. Brown and Carney have been doing a bang-up job on the PR, but they’ve made two mistakes…
…the first was the brilliant idea to advertise that a “real zombie” would appear at the club’s opening. The second is basing their radio campaign on a broadcaster who turns out to be Ace’s bete noir, Douglas Walker (Louis Jean Heydt) a weisenheimer crusader type who delights in needling the mobster on the air. This is like asking Jon Stewart to publicize Bill O’Reilly’s new country club. And worse yet, Walker knows the washed-up prize-fighter the boys intended to pass off as a zombie.
When Walker promises to bring some professor types to vet Ace’s zombie, things get heavy for Brown and Carney, who are forced to board a ship bound for the mythical island of Saint Sebastian, to return with a real zombie or face Ace’s rather drastic consequences. You’ll recognize Saint Sebastian from the aforementioned I Walked With a Zombie. Those seem to be the same sets, too, and oh look, there’s Sir Lancelot, King of the Calypso, acting as a Greek chorus when the boys get off the ship.
That’s not the only holdover from that infinitely superior movie. I’m not talking about Bela Lugosi, who is playing Dr. Paul Renault, mad scientist who is attempting to create a zombie scientifically, I’m talking about the genuine zombie in his employ, Darby Jones, who was the eerie Carrefour in the earlier film. Here, he’s a zombie named Kalaga, and gets lots more screen time, which rather cuts down on the eerieness.
Brown and Carney also pick up a spunky knife-throwing singer (Anne Jeffries) who promises to help them find a zombie if they’ll get her off the island. She’s also going to wind up on Lugosi’s list of potential subjects, but it’s Carney who will wind up with the bulging eyeballs of the zombie, and the boys’ potential savior back in New York, until the sight of a pretty cigarette girl causes him to shake off the effects of Lugosi’s experimental serum, and hilarity supposedly ensues.
Zombies on Broadway is reasonably well-made, and took in enough at the box office to ensure a sequel, Genius at Work, once again involving Lugosi. Sadly, Brown and Carney lack the charisma and chemistry of other comedy duos, and have thus faded into obscurity. The voodoo rituals which seemed fairly authentic in I Walked With a Zombie degenerate into a jungle hoodoo hugger-mugger more in keeping with the jungle sets from the Tarzan movies (which were used). It tries earnestly be a horror comedy in the vein of The Ghost Breakers but never manages to hit the heights of the movies it imitates. Brown and Carney simply can’t carry an extended vehicle, and when your two comedy stars are effortlessly upstaged by the then-obligatory Comical Superstitious Negro Janitor (Nick Stewart), you have a definite problem.
It would have been nice to end Hubrisween on a more positive note, but then: there was a reason I swore off zombie movies for a decade. That reason just went back further than I suspected.