This time out I’d like to say a word or two in favor of Victor Halperin’s 1936 horror film “Revolt of the Zombies.” You know, the film that lives in the perpetual shadow cast by Halperin’s earlier “White Zombie.”
It’s always hard being compared to a masterpiece, and I’m not going to say that “Revolt of the Zombies” has been unfairly treated. It is no masterpiece. But it’s not completely without interest either. Yes, it’s tone is as languorous as the climate of Angkor Wat, in whose studio-bound incarnation most of the action takes place. And for horror fans nothing really tops that opening scene of the squadron of zombified French colonial infantrymen going into action against a German-held trench. But thereafter it takes a different tact than Halperin’s earlier zombie opus. “White Zombie” benefited from the presence of Bela Lugosi, hot off of “Dracula,” and so his zombie-master is a creature of pure evil, given over completely to the satisfaction of his own desires. “Revolt of the Zombies” offers audiences a very different zombie-master in the form of a young Dean Jagger, who, as he aged would mostly portray icons of integrity.
Initially called on the carpet by his superior officers for the success of his gruesome troops, the decision is made to ban all future experimentation with zombie troopers. The subsequent murder of the Vietnamese priest who worked the ghastly magic seems to insure that the door will be closed on such activities forever. At this point in the film Jagger is a sort of Charlie Brown, bullied by his superiors in spite of a “win,” and sneered at by his brother-officers. When, after the war, he discovers for himself the secret for making men into zombies and controlling them in the ruins of a temple, he undergoes a worm-turns transformation, kicked into high gear when the woman he loves–the daughter of his former commanding officer–dumps him for a more manly man. This is when Jagger’s character decides to become a master of men and zombies. He zombifies just about everyone he can lay his hands on, including his former superior and his romantic rival–but not the woman he loves. (Lugosi’s Murder Legendre in the earlier Halperin film had no such scruples and seemed to delight in possessing a blonde zombie of his very own.) In the end Jagger’s love for the unattainable woman causes him to commit suicide by releasing the zombies under his control, knowing that they will turn on him and destroy him. So “Revolt of the Zombies” becomes more a tragic love story than the dark fairy-tale that is “White Zombie” and which perhaps accounts for that film’s enduring appeal. Jagger’s “villain” begins as a decent man who comes to the terrible conclusion that decency will get him nowhere in the world, yet in the end finds himself insufficiently indecent to realize his desires.