If nothing else, at least it proves that even the 1930s could do abysmal zombie movies.
Revolt of the Zombies is supposedly the sequel to White Zombie, which starred Bela Lugosi and was excellent. This film is neither excellent nor in any sense a sequel. The only reason it's ever been regarded as the latter is that the Halperins called it that, presumably for box office reasons, despite the fact that it's merely another film with "zombie" in the title. They announced that they were making it in November 1935 and sent a camera crew to Angkor in Indochina to get some background shots for the film. (I'm impressed by the latter, actually.) Unfortunately they hadn't yet sorted out the small matter of a script. In January 1936, they still didn't have one despite shooting being planned for February. They eventually made the film in March, with no writer credited on it.
The plot has nothing whatsoever to do with White Zombie's. Bela Lugosi's eyes get superimposed over the action from time to time, but that the nearest he gets to making an appearance and as far as the audience is concerned, they're just a random pair of eyes. It's stock footage from the other film, in other words. I'm sure he wasn't even paid. I should discuss the story in more detail, but in doing this I'm going to do something that I normally dislike and summarise the plot. I'm doing this for three reasons. Firstly, nothing could illustrate this film's badness so effectively as the film itself. Secondly, a synopsis might prove useful should you one day watch it, because in which case you'll want this handy guide to what's going on. The movie itself only has a passing interest in its own story, so there are important plot points that will probably pass you by unless you're really good at guessing or else you look it up on the internet afterwards. Thirdly, there's nothing here worth spoiling, so what the hell.
The film begins with a brief text introduction. "Many strange events were recorded in the secret archives of the fighting nations during the world war... But none stranger than that which occurred when a regiment of French Cambodians from the vicinity of the lost city in Angkor arrived on the Franco-Austrian front." They're talking about the First World War, by the way. Obviously no one in 1936 had heard of any other.
The action now begins, with a first ten minutes that throws away more cool ideas than you'll see in any other half-a-dozen zombie movies. The French (with American accents) have an oriental priest who claims to be able to turn men into zombies and make an indestructible army. Admittedly the idea of a bunch of pre-Romero zombies might not sound very intimidating, but they look quite good in a demonstration where they're shrugging off bullets. Anyway, the French at first don't believe him, then decide that this is too ghastly to be allowed, then finally launch an expedition to seek out these secrets they don't want and thus ensure that they'll never be used. Eh? This latter bit apparently takes place after the war is over, which is a plot point I missed.
This is the movie's less bad bit, but it doesn't make much sense. The priest lets himself be sentenced to life imprisonment for the sake of his secret, but then decides to burn a scroll that in some way has something to do with something. That's another plot point I missed. The scroll has pictures of large-breasted women, which is good but not obviously connected with zombies and I don't remember any exposition around then to explain what the hell was going on here. Why does he have the scroll in his cell with him, anyway? If it's so important, why didn't the French take it away? Or do they run their military prisons on the honour system and refuse to search their prisoners for guns, explosives and so on?
Anyway, a villain murders the priest and steals the scroll, but no one ever seems to notice that a murder has taken place or even be suspicious of our villain, who's a trusted member of the French camp despite the fact that he couldn't look more villainous if he were twirling a moustache and tying girls to railway lines. His involvement in the rest of the movie is to be sidelined for about half an hour, then die.
Those first ten minutes make it look as if we might be getting WWI zombies, which would have been cool, but then suddenly we're off on an archeological dig and watching a mummy movie. It's Cambodia rather than Egypt, but it's still all about pyramids, ancient secrets, a shortage of undead action and so on. Our heroes are an international team of scientists (England, Scotland, France, etc.) who all have American accents, including Dean Jagger, Robert Noland, George Cleveland and Dorothy Stone. Jagger is intelligent, but bad at being ruthless. Noland tells him to be more ruthless. Jagger has a scene in which he tells Stone that he's never been in love with anyone, so by the time of their next scene they've got engaged. There's an accident and Stone is present, after which Jagger and Stone talk about something. In fairness important things do sometimes happen in this movie, but it's generally offscreen. It's as if the Halperins shot a ninety-minute film, picked out all the unnecessary scenes and then turned those into their movie, discarding any scene with important story developments.
Reading up about this afterwards on the internet, I learned to my surprise that Stone accepted Jagger's proposal of marriage to spite Noland, but had always really loved Noland after all and Jagger was thus releasing her from her engagement. It doesn't help that Jagger and Noland look similar enough that I wasn't always sure which one was which.
If you're in the right mood, there's a scene with entertainingly bad special effects. Admittedly the painted backdrops have been painfully obvious ever since we supposedly arrived in Cambodia, but the back-projection has to be seen to be believed for the scene of wading through a swamp. Two actors move their legs on the spot as a screen behind them shows images of a swamp, which are moving past at a pace unrelated to their supposed movement. On getting out of the water, they are completely dry. Anyway, one of these men is Jagger (although I wasn't sure for a while if it was Noland) and he's about to find the secret of turning men into zombies! It seems that all you have to do is blow some smoke in someone's direction, not worrying about whether you breathe it yourself, or else alternatively you can choose not to do anything at all and random people in a completely different place will considerately decide to zombie out. This process can also be reversed. It's not clear to me how this would work with the bulletproof zombies we saw earlier, but let's not worry about that. Jagger turns everyone into zombies because he's taught himself to be ruthless, but Claire isn't happy, so Jagger lets them go back to normal again and they kill him. The end.
With a storyline like this, nothing else matters. Stone and Jagger have not the slightest spark of chemistry, but even that doesn't make any difference. I think Jagger's supposed to be emotionally distant anyway. Dean Jagger won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor a decade later in Twelve O'Clock High (1949), so I'm not going to lay all this movie's failures at his feet. There's almost nothing of interest in this movie at all, unless you count unintentionally amusing scenes like the one where Jagger is attacked by a man with a knife, only to knock him to the ground and then just turn and walk away. His very next action is to fall through a hole in the floor while looking up at a bat.
I will object to the lack of zombies, though. Except in that bit at the beginning, this film has no voodoo, no resurrection of the recently dead and no walking cadavers. Instead it has silly hypnosis. Sometimes they even call the zombies "robots", which again suggests a more interesting movie than the one we got. In its favour the film is at least set in a real archeological location and it's trying to do grand character-based tragedy, but it's too boring and underwritten to get even close to that. The only noteworthy thing about the ending is how stupid it is. It's not even "so bad it's good" in an Ed Wood way, instead being merely illogical and dreary with an undercooked cast. Objectively the film's only 65 minutes long, but subjectively it lasts about 650 years. Wow, this was a slog. I haven't been driven out of my skull like this by a movie for a long time. Avoid as you would a rabid dog that wants to bite off your leg and have sex with the stump.