Thursday, January 25, 2018

Zombies on Broadway (1945)

Zombies on Broadway is a title everyone seems to know, but few people seem to have bothered watching.  Usually cursorily dismissed in reference books as a typically bad B movie which wastes Bela Lugosi, in point of fact, the film isn't without interest.  First up, like the later Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, it features an imitation of a then popular double act.  In this case it is Wally Brown and Alan Carney, a pair of vaudevillians who were put together by RKO as their answer to Abbot and Costello, who were earning Universal big bucks with their comedy movies.  Brown and Carney made eight movies for RKO as a team, in addition to appearing in several other movies where they didn't share scenes.  Most of their movies as a team for RKO were, to a greater or lesser extent, remakes of earlier RKO movies, reworking the old scripts.  Whilst Zombies on Broadway is nominally from an original script, it does have some connections to an earlier RKO B movie: the Val Lewton produced I Walked With a Zombie.  Not only does it feature two of the same supporting cast - calypso singer Sir Lancelot and Darby Jones recreating his zombie role from the earlier film - the name of the island - San Sebastian - the hapless duo go to in search of a zombie is the sames as the one the action of I Walked With a Zombie unfolds on.

Sadly, that's where any resemblance to the earlier film ends - Zombies on Broadway is played strictly for laughs.  Unfortunately, it doesn't really generate many.  The biggest problem lies with Brown and Carney - the studio might well have been pushing them as a new Abbot and Costello, but unlike them, or any other established double act who had spent years developing their material, there is just nothing distinctive about them, either individually or as a team.  I'm not an Abbot and Costello fan but there's no doubt that they had distinct screen characters which established clear expectations from their audience and gave rise to distinctive routines.  By contrast, even in this, their sixth film together, Brown and Carney come over like two strangers who have been randomly thrown together,  There's no chemistry, consequently no decent repartee or convincing comic interaction.  All of which leaves something of a vacuum at the centre of the film.  Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, turns in a pretty good deadpan comic performance.  Still, from his perspective, working for RKO was a distinct step up from the dreadful pictures he'd recently been making for Monogram.

To be fair, Zombies on Broadway has a half decent central premise which, with stronger comic leads, might have yielded a more memorable pictures, along the lines of The Ghost Breakers, perhaps.  Basically, a pair of press agents (Brown and Carney) make the mistake of advertising that the opening of a new York nightclub owned by a local gangster will feature a real zombie.  Initially planning to pass off a retire boxer acquaintance as a member of the undead, they are rumbled by a Walter Winchell-type gossip columnists, who threatens to expose the gangster's opening night as fraudulent.  Naturally, under threat of death, Brown and Carney head for San Sebastian in search of renowned Zombie expert Dr Renault.  The latter, of course, turns out to be Bela Lugosi who, interestingly, is trying to replicate the natives' Voodoo zombification process with a scientifically derived serum.  Unfortunately, his subjects either die or revert to normality after a few hours.  Before the film is over, Carney has become a zombie and Lugosi has fallen foul of his own pet zombie (Jones).  Brown tries to use Carney for the club's opening night, but he recovers just before going on stage, but somebody else gets a shot of Lugosi's serum just in the nick of time.

Despite its deficiencies, Zombies on Broadway is a tolerable sixty eight minutes.  Sure there are some moments which seem jarring to modern audiences - most notably when Carney blacks up with soot and pretends to be a native: 'You were so scared you've turned black' - but it boasts the sort of decent production values you'd expect from a studio produced B movie and moves along at a decent pace.  In the director's chair is none other than Gordon Douglas, then a prolific director of B movies, but post war a director of bigger budget pictures such as the giant ant classic Them, a Rat Pack movie, Robin and the Seven Hoods and a trio of pretty decent Frank Sinatra vehicles: Tony Rome, The Detective and Lady in Cement.  His direction lends Zombies on Broadway a slickness and professionalism absent in many other B movies of the era.  As ever, Zombies on Broadway is no lost classic, but it does provide a decent diversion for just over an hour.  Plus, it has one of the truly all time great titles.



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