Monday, November 2, 2009

Lugosi mostly wasted in this comedy muted by passage of time

Zombies on Broadway (aka "Loonies on Broadway") (1945)
Starring: Wally Brown, Alan Carney, Sheldon Leonard, Bela Lugosi, Anne Jeffreys and Darby Jones
Director: Douglas Gordon
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A pair of bumbling promoters (Brown and Carney) travel to the voodoo-haunted San Sebastian island to find a real zombie for the opening night of a racketeer's new night club, the Zombie Hut.

There aren't many comedies that remain relevant and funny beyond the decade in which they were made, let alone five decades after they were made. This is even more true if a comedy full of pop culture references that the people of the day would understand, but that grow evermore obscure and meaningless to viewers who come later. "Zombies on Broadway" is a comedy that has been sapped of all its punch in the interveening years.

Much of the humor in this film is derived from the fact that it is to a large extent a direct spoof of "I Walked With a Zombie", a stylish horror film that had been a hit for RKO in 1943 and which the audiences watching this film in 1945 would almost certainly have seen. The setting for the two films are the same, the same wandering muscian sings the same tune in both flicks--although here the lyrics are goofy instead of haunting--and the spoofing of the trek to the secret voodoo ceremony is unmistakable and funny... if you're familiar with "I Walked With a Zombie." If not, the film will seem even more insipid than it is.

Aside from the muted references to a popular movie that has now fallen into obscurity, the film is further hampered by the fact that it centers around a pair of comedians whose routines will remind viewers of Abbott & Costello. Unfortunately, Brown & Carney are no Abbott & Costello, so with vaudeville and this style of comedy no longer in vougue, viewers will find themselves wondering why they aren't watching the real Abbott & Costello instead of a studio-manufactured knock-off. (The only bits that remain chuckle-worthy are some of the activity when Mike gets turned into a zombie.)

Even Bela Lugosi fans will be disappointed with this one. While he had an absolutely fabulous role in "The Body Snatcher" (also from RKO the following year), the role he plays here is on the level of some of his worst Poverty Row flicks and a foreshadowing of what is to come for him in "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" toward the end of his career. Lugosi doesn't even get to show his talent for comedy, something that at let him do every so often.

Finally, this film pre-dates the flesh-eating zombies that have become the cinematic norm since George Romero made "Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead". It centers around voodoo and the kind of zombie that entered into the public imagination with White Zombie, one of the many genre-defining horror films that Bela Lugosi appeared in (and which is also referenced obliquely in "Zombies on Broadway").

If you're interested in seeing what a satire like "Team America: World Police" will look like to viewers in 50 years (or "Disaster Movie" or "Silver City" in five years), this film is worth checking out. Otherwise, it should just be ignored. My advice is to spend the time you might have wasted watching this film is to seek out a copy of "I Walked With a Zombie", one of the greatest zombie movies ever made. (And, as of this writing, freshly available on DVD alone with the eight other groundbreaking and vionary horror movies that he produced for RKO during the 1940s. They are films that anyone who enjoys horror movies must see... and that goes double if you fancy yourself a filmmaker. (The set even includes the aforementioned "The Body Snatcher.")

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