Friday, December 14, 2018

Worth Mentioning - Classic Zombie Movies

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody tries to make up for missing a marathon by having a quadruple feature of old zombie movies.

Over the last several months, I have been trying to make up to some degree for the fact that I missed a handful of horror marathons that were held at the Springmill Drive-In in Mansfield, Ohio last year. This attempt involved watching the movies that were shown at the marathons I missed and writing about them in Worth Mentioning articles. I've covered the marathon of movies from the 1950s, the 1960s marathon, and the 1980s one... and now we've reached the last of them, a marathon of "classic zombie movies".

It's interesting to note that Springmill didn't go the obvious route with their marathon, because none of the movies they showed during their zombie weekend feature the flesh-eating walking dead. These zombies are the type the world knew before George A. Romero changed our perception of them with his film Night of the Living Dead - in fact, all but one of these movies were released well before Night came out in 1968. They have the mindless, shambling thing down, but they weren't yet munching on guts or brains.

7:00pm - KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941)

Director Jean Yarbrough's horror comedy King of the Zombies might be more well known today if the project had been able to hold on to Bela Lugosi, who had originally been cast to play the titular character. Or if they had been able to get the second choice for the character, Peter Lorre. But king of the zombies Dr. Miklos Sangre ended up being played by Henry Victor, a prolific actor who managed to earn over 100 screen credits before passing away at the age of 52, yet isn't a draw like Lugosi and Lorre are.

Regardless of who's playing Sangre, the film really should be popular because it was a starring vehicle for comedic actor Mantan Moreland (who would have a cameo in Spider Baby more than twenty years later). A film from the early 1940s that stars an African American is something special, and Moreland was a great talent who unfortunately faded into obscurity once people began to see his usual "frightened black servant" role as offensive. Well, Moreland was cast as servants because of his race, but his skin color was irrelevant to his comedic skills. His acting would have been funny regardless, as Moe Howard and Larry Fine could see when they tried to get him cast as the replacement third Stooge when Shemp passed away. He got lead roles in movies because he was funny, and he's entertaining enough to make King of the Zombies worth watching.

Moreland plays one of three men who are searching for a Navy Admiral whose plane went missing while he was on a government mission to Panama. Their own plane gets lost somewhere between Cuba and Puerto Rico, and they end up crash landing (in a cemetery) on a mysteirous island that's inhabited by the creepy Dr. Sangre, his servants, the zombies he has created through hypnosis, one of them being his own wife, and his wife's niece, who knows Sangre is up to no good and wants to ger her aunt away from this place. Which means she'll become an ally to our heroes and a love interest for one of them.

There's a plot playing out here, but the only important thing is how amusing it is to watch Moreland's character Jefferson Jackson reluctantly and fearfully make his way through this crazy situation.

8:15pm - BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT (1942)

Bowery at Midnight is barely a zombie movie, and the fleeting seconds when zombies are the screen are a rare point when one could even consider it a horror movie. The film, which was directed by Wallace Fox from a script by Gerald Schnitzer, is really a crime thriller... and if it starred anyone other than Bela Lugosi, it probably wouldn't get play as part of horror marathons.

Lugosi's character is criminal psychologist Professor Brenner, who happens to be a criminal himself. He has a secret life where he runs The Friendly Mission in the bowery section of Manhattan under the name Karl Wagner, and the mission is a front for a recruitment effort - when a criminal passes through, they end up working for Brenner, helping him pull off robberies. When one of his underlings has outlived his usefulness, he has another lackey kill them off. He has clearly done this several times, but at least he's kind enough to give his victims marked graves in the mission's cellar.

Bowery at Midnight is more frequently unintentionally amusing than it is thrilling, but there is a very chilling confrontation between Brenner, one of his helpers, and a student from his class who makes the unwise decision to go to the mission. That moment is actually even more horrific than the zombies.

The zombies seem to have been thrown in as a random afterthought. They're somehow created by a drug-addled doctor who hangs out at the mission, and he's the best zombie-maker ever because his zombies are actually able to carry on completely normal lives.

I don't find this movie to be very interesting overall, and part of that may be because it doesn't live up to the expectations I had for a Bela Lugosi movie that has zombies in it... But it's also because it's a really silly crime movie. At least it's only 61 minutes long.


Vengeance of the Zombies is the only film of the "classic zombie" night that was released after George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead added a new definition to the word "zombie" in 1968, but this film - which was directed by Leon Klimovsky from a screenplay by Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy (star of the werewolf movies The Mark of the Wolfman and Assignment Terror, among others) - doesn't stand out from the pack; like the zombies in the other films shown during this quadruple feature, the ones here aren't flesh-eaters.

These zombies are mindless murderers who rise from their graves at the bidding of a fellow called Kantaka, the evil twin brother of religious guru Krishna - both of whom are played by Naschy, soaked in self tanner to make him look like he hails from India. As if miscasting himself in those two roles weren't enough, Naschy also portrays a third character in the film, sporting horns as Satan himself, glimpsed in nightmares had by heroine Elvire (the mononymous Romy), who was apparently named in honor of Naschy's real life wife Elvira.

One thing made very clear in this film is that Naschy wasn't interested in making the scripting process easy for himself. There's a voodoo practicing masked killer going around knocking people off, a group of zombie women attacking people, the Satanist brother of a guru targeting his twin's associates... any one of these elements could have been the sole focus of a movie, but Naschy mashed them all together, and also added in a horrific back story for the house Krishna is staying in. I'm not saying it's a good script, but it's certainly not a simple one. The movie didn't need to be so convoluted. As it is, you have to struggle to pay attention through scenes of exposition while waiting for the killers and creatures to get back to the screen.

At least there's the unexpected score by Juan Carlos Calderon to help the scenes between kills and scares go by. I had heard that Calderon's music didn't go with the movie before I watched it, but its incongruity truly has to be heard to be believed.

Vengeance of the Zombies is a somewhat astounding film overall. I didn't really like it, but at the same time I'm glad I watched it. Its scattered kitchen sink approach made for quite a viewing experience.

10:55pm - PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)

Although I think its crown has been well usurped by now, Plan 9 from Outer Space had the reputation of being the worst movie ever made for quite a while, and it was that reputation that led me to rent it on VHS and give it a look some time in the 1990s. What I found when I rented the film was that it wasn't anywhere close to being the worst movie ever made. There is much worse out there.

That said, Plan 9 is a mess, to be sure. Written and directed by Edward D. Wood Jr., it has a great idea at its core - alien invaders resurrect the dead as part of their plot to take over the world. Aliens and zombies, that's the makings of an awesome movie. Problem was, Wood just did not have the ability to make an awesome movie. However, he did have the ability to make an unintentionally hilarious one, and Plan 9 is really funny. You can laugh at the inept filmmaking, and you can laugh at the atrocious dialogue, which begins right up front, with psychic The Amazing Criswell (as himself) staring into the camera to greet us with the lines: "We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future."

One major hindrance to the film is how Wood worked in footage of Bela Lugosi that he had shot for an abandoned project the pair were working on before Lugosi passed away in 1956. Lugosi says nothing in this footage, he is just seen mourning at a graveside and later walking out of a house. With melodramatic narration from Criswell letting us know what's going on, Lugosi walks off screen to be hit by a car. He'll come back as a zombie later, with an unconvincing body double stepping in to hold a cape in front of his face so we'll accept that it's still supposed to be Lugosi.

There are only three zombies in the movie, all of them stalking the same California cemetery. The aliens are taking a gradual approach to conquering the planet with the living dead. In addition to "Lugosi" there's also zombies played by Maila "Vampira" Nurmi and wrestler Tor Johnson. Certainly a memorable trio.

With dead people attacking the living, even invading the home of a couple that lives near the cemetery, and flying saucers zooming around, taking fire from the U.S. military, Plan 9 has really cool ideas in it... and they're really poorly executed. While being amused by how bad the movie is, I also can't help but imagine a much better version of Plan 9 while I'm watching it. These things should have been in a better movie.

A whiny humanoid giving over-the-top line readings while informing Earthlings how stupid we are leads us into the end of the film, and with it the end of the Springmill Drive-In's 2017 series of marathons. Ending on Plan 9 was an interesting choice, but an entertaining one, taking things out on an upbeat, lively note.

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