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Halloween Watch: Zombies on Broadway (1945)

In honor of Halloween, Adam and I have decided to watch a few themed movies and review them together here for you. We would love to hear your reactions to the films too, so please leave your comments for us.

S: The title is misleading to modern audiences. In my mind it means something similar in plot to King Kong, complete with the beast getting loose and eating the audience. Of course in those days, zombies were more like automatons than the flesh-eating monsters we think of today.

A: Yes, zombies now exclusively suggest hoards of the undead and apocalyptic scenarios. Until Night of the Living Dead kick-started the modern usage, the word zombie was suggestive of voodoo rituals in the Caribbean. I think more than monsters, the word conjured up the name of an especially potent cocktail served at tiki bars. I proudly display a mid-century tin of Zombies brand candies (“A Delicious Coconut Confection Flavored with Fine Imported Rum”) on my mantel. The image on the tin is a serene palm-tree laden island with thatched huts and couple natives. No flesh eaters in sight. Back to the movie title: Zombies on Broadway instantly reminds me of the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene of Young Frankenstein.

S: You and I had the good fortune of visiting the Grass Skirt in Columbus a few times before it closed. We must not be the only ones who enjoy tiki themed bars. I saw an introduction for Noir Alley on TCM with Eddie Muller recently and he was seated in front of his home tiki bar. 

The opening scene of our film shows a publicity stunt for a new nightclub: an airplane drops hundreds of fliers onto the city. It is reminiscent of the party fliers going down the stairwell at the high school in 10 Things I Hate About You. People dutifully take one and no one gets hurt. Did anyone actually perform such stunts and did the work involved create enough results to be worthwhile?

A: I love how after that scene the nitwits suggest further advertising by writing Zombie Hut on the sidewalks. The big boss gangster instantly rejects the idea. “Nuh-uh, I don’t want to get in any trouble with the city.” After dumping litter over several city blocks! This was the first chuckle I got out of the movie. I had forgotten about 10 Things… It reminded me of the opening of Dunkirk. Dumping leaflets was a common tool for war efforts. This movie was released only a few months before Japan surrendered, so maybe that was fresh on the screenwriters’ minds. Incidentally, I found an article announcing that the MGM had bought the screen rights to Robert Faber and Charles Newman’s musical (!) story “Zombies on Broadway” for their 1941-1942 season. I’m not sure how it jumped to RKO’s 1945 production schedule. I’m just going to assume the rights were anted in a poker game.

S: Ha! Or given away. While watching, I said to myself, "These Bela Lugosi Bs sure do blend together. They’re all the same. I feel like I’ve seen this one before." Then, when I saw Anne Jeffreys in the nightclub, it clicked. I have seen this one before! I watched it prior to writing to her and asking for her autograph. (I got it!)

A: That is so cool that you got a response from Ms. Jeffreys. She is quite the dish here as the wonderfully named Jean La Danse.

I realized that I had also seen it sometime in the murky past. You’re right about the films blending together. I’ve survived all nine films Lugosi made for Monogram. They are bizarre, incoherent, and a great deal of fun. I couldn’t tell you what any of them are about.

Zombies is 68 minutes and I think Bela takes up about 15 of those. Of course, those are the best parts of the film. As I watched, I repeated his lines out loud. At the 56-minute mark I stumbled.  He says, “And don’t try to escape! The dogs would tear you to bits before you could [unintelligible] the grounds.” I replayed this line about ten times to try to decipher what he says. Get off the grounds? Crawl the grounds? Help!

S: Cross the grounds? Crawl the grounds? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is he means business. No funny stuff, you hear? The movie is fun if you let yourself like it. There is a juvenile quality to the characters who never anticipate danger and who are easily fooled by circumstance. It has the same sensibility as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein but without the same polish. WALLY BROWN : Coconut blight? He said it was a banana blight. LUGOSI: Oh Joseph’s colorblind.

A: I liked the bit where Wally Brown and Alan Carney were digging their graves and they’re each emptying their shovels into the other’s hole. I mean…I was on the verge of laughing. The cusp of comedy, you might say. Harrison’s Reports panned the movie, “Set this comedy down as one that might appeal to the youngsters but will probably bore their elders.” I can imagine kids getting a kick out of this in ’45. It’s odd from today’s perspective but fodder like this and ‘B’ westerns were what most kids probably watched. They are films almost entirely populated by adults and yet everyone seems so neutered.  But they’re doing adult things like going to bars and drinking (“tripicle rum punch”—a triple tropical drink). Did you laugh out loud once? Did the monkey pretending to be a zombie make you smile?

S: Oh, it made me laugh when they were digging their own graves, for hours, we can assume, and yet they barely got dirty, and they hadn't worked up enough of a sweat to take off their suit jackets. The monkey bit was cute, and Lugosi's abrupt "I hate him!" when Brown and Carney mention the professor who told them about his work with zombies felt like something out of a modern comedy. 

This was directed by Gordon Douglas who also did many Our Gang shorts.

A: Douglas directed some gems: Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, the giant ants in Them!, and Carroll Baker in Harlow.

S: I wonder how they did the zombie eyes. Are they simply pieces glued onto the closed eyelids of the actor?

A: However that effect was done, it was cool. There are some creepy moments in the film and some good camerawork (Jack MacKenzie was director of photography for Lewton’s creepy Isle of the Dead the same year).

In the spirit of Halloween and sickly-sweet candy, I have devised a rating scale for fright films: it’s 1 through 5 mellowcreme pumpkins and if you really dislike the film, you give it a dirty penny.

I'm awarding Zombies on Broadway two mellowcremes! A half-hearted effort that provoked neither fear nor laughs. Still, a decent Sunday afternoon movie.

S: I agree, two mellowcremes. If you've got young kids, I think this would entertain them. 

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