After White Zombie made a splash in 1932, introducing the very idea of "zombies" to American filmgoers, it would seem like the next logical step would be for a small explosion in zombie pictures. This was the '30s, after all, when Hollywood was in arguably the most knock-off friendly period in its history. And yet, for years, nothing.

This is not as unusual as it seems on its face. Recall that this was a time when the paranormal was grudgingly allowed into movies if at all, even Universal's massively successful Dracula was followed by only a trickle of vampire movies, in no small part because of the squeamishness many producers and studios had about the notion of vampires in the first place. Not to mention that the idea of zombies lacked the immediate folkloric familiarity of vampires, werewolves, mad scientists - for most Americans, White Zombie was their sole point of contact with the idea of reanimated corpses under the control of a voodoo master. In fact, this resulted in a lawsuit when Amusement Securities Corporation, the financiers of White Zombie, attempted to prevent brothers Edward and Victor Halperin, creators of White Zombie, from using the very word "zombie" in any future production.

For of course, there was ultimately another zombie movie produced, else we would not be here: from 1936, the Halperin's Revolt of the Zombies, the second-ever English language zombie movie, and a tremendously loose sequel to White Zombie itself - the lawsuit dictated that it couldn't be marketed as such, which is probably for the good, since other than the zombies themselves (and, sort of hilariously, the close-up of Bela Lugosi's eyes that the first film used as a shorthand for "hypnosis is going on right now", despite the absence of Lugsosi from this project otherwise), there is not a single thing connecting the two movies.

You'll very quickly find that I haven't very many nice things to say about Revolt of the Zombies, but I shall begin with one of them: even after the span of more than seven decades, during which the zombie picture has been done and redone and overdone from every angle, I still think that even the most seasoned viewer will find that this movie has a rather outstandingly original concept. Now, I can't claim absolute knowledge, but I still think I'd know if there was another zombie film set in WWI-era Cambodia. But not quite yet: we begin on the Franco-Austrian front, where a Cambodian priest, Tsiang (William Crowell, who, you'll be amazed to learn, is not actually Asian), imported along with several of his countrymen to fight on behalf of their French occupiers, comes to the offices of the French military with a proposition: he is the last member of his religious order who knows the rituals of creating unkillable, robot-like humans, which are called by his people zombies.* His idea is to create an army of these "zombies" for the French, thereby guaranteeing them a victory in the war. Only one French officer, the translator Armand Louque (Dean Jagger), believes this story, but when Tsiang goes ahead and creates just such a platoon, everybody freaks out a little, nobody more than General Duval (George Cleveland), who immediately arrests Tsiang - as he and his German counterpart, von Schelling (Adolph Millard), discuss during a brief truce, the possibility of the Yellow Hordes using this zombie magic to take over the world from the white folks is too horrifying to contemplate.

In the meantime, Tsiang is murdered by von Schelling's second-in-command, General Mazovia (Roy D'Arcy); a magnificently overblown villain he is, too, with a thin little mustache and the god-damnedest accent ever and the general aura of somebody who, if you ever shook hands with him, would prove to be covered in a thin layer of ice-cold slime. Being as he positively reeks of evil, it's no shock that Mazovia wants to steal the zombie-making magic for himself, but nobody on the French or German sides comes anywhere near that conclusion; instead, concerned that Tsiang's knowledge has fallen into the wrong hands, Duval and von Schelling agree that, just as soon as this little war thing is over, they'll go straight to Angkor Wat, and destroy whatever they can find of the zombie-creating totems.

That gets us about 10 or 12 minutes into the film; I quoted it at length firstly because it's so full of completely weird notes - zombies as a secret war weapon! zombies created like Model Ts in an Angkor assembly line! Germans and Frenchmen, working together! the most over-the-top movie villain of 1936! - and because the movie hereafter ceases to be interesting. Scratch that, the movie ceases to be watchable. We've already seen what is, by a huge margin, the best scene: it's the march of Tsiang's zombies over a trench on the Austrian front, getting riddled by bullets and not falling down, with Lugosi's eyes superimposed. From here on, there's nothing approaching that level of otherworldly eeriness, which is all the more criminal considering that director Victor Halperin did such a magnificent job of suffusing White Zombie with an almost non-stop barrage of poetically horrifying moments. The best moments are the ones that leave a modern viewer, who knows all about what zombie movies "ought" to do, scrunching his or her brow and murmuring, "well that's peculiar"; the worst are... well, they're pretty fucking awful, is what.

The trip to Cambodia includes every character we've seen so far but the unfortunate Tsiang, including Armand Louque's good buddy, the Englishman Clifford Grayson (Robert Noland); he was introduced in a semi-pointless scene in which Louque admitted his frustration at not being able to convince anyone that zombies could exist (this was before Tsiang's little demonstration), including the absolutely crackerjack observation that science has accepted the existence of mental telepathy as a fact, the two men coming to the conclusion that Louque just needs to be more determined in pursuing his objectives. We're also, at this point, introduced to Duval's daughter, Claire (Dorothy Stone), and she is the saucy little minx who comes aboard to make absolutely damn sure that nobody in the history of ever would be able to squeeze even the tiniest scrap of enjoyment out of Revolt of the Zombies.

Here's what happens: Louque falls in love, instantly, with Claire; Claire falls in love, instantly, with Grayson; Grayson likes Claire, but lacks the confidence to do anything about it (diatribes about this person or that needing more confidence and determination make up something like 25% of the dialogue in Revolt of the Zombies). Louque proposes to Claire, and she accepts, which makes Grayson jealous and then an especially grating contrivance propels Claire into Grayson's arms. Louque goes a little bit apeshit over this, and to get his revenge, sneaks into Angkor Wat, finds the secret zombie recipe (the scene where he first practices on his aide Buna, played by Teru Shimada, is a small anti-masterpiece of incoherent blocking and random character motivations), and turns everybody in the movie into his zombie retainers, except for Claire. Realising that he can't force her to love him, he releases all the zombies from his control, as a sign of good faith. Before you can say, "well, duh", they break into his palace and kill him.

After I outlined the first 10 minutes so precisely, I have given this whirlwind tour of the last 55 for one reason alone: it's horrible and awful and boring and I didn't want to spend any more time thing about it. There is, it's true, some not-entirely-small fascination in seeing a movie set up a character to be our hero the way Revolt of the Zombies does with Louque, only to reveal in the second act that, aha! he's actually our villain. That would be notable at any point in film history, and it's positively startling in a cheap programmer from the mid-'30s.

Such a tiny grace note, though, in the face of so much grinding! One does not anticipate that a movie titled Revolt of the Zombies will be primarily about a love triangle, with a jilted lover turning into a voodoo chieftain out of a desire to show off in front of the girl. But titling isn't the film's strong suit: in point of fact, the uprising that ends the story is only a "revolt" if you squint a little, and there aren't any zombies according to any standard definition: only the bodies in the opening war scene can be plausibly described as dead, while every single other "zombie" we see over the course of the movie is simply under hypnotic control. There was some confusion in White Zombie> as to exactly what makes a zombie, but at least the bulk of them seemed to be genuine reanimated corpses.

That is, however, the kind of complaint more easily made by a modern viewer with more concrete ideas of what a zombie movie should be; about on par with seeing Caribbean magic being practiced in Southeast Asia. Distracting, but not ultimately a film-ruining problem. The film-ruining problems are far more typical: there's a stupefying amount of talking, as the same thing is said over and over again (Louque becomes a zombie warlord because he had to learn determination, or some such), in front of cheaply-done projections of Angkor Wat, by a lot of really irritating actors. There's no trace of the fine career that Dean Jagger would enjoy in the future; but he and Robert Noland, for all their wooden blandness, aren't nearly as detrimental to the film as Dorothy Stone's simply ghastly turn as Claire. This was the Broadway veteran's only chance to headline a feature film (she'd been in two shorts, and would appear, years later, as a spear-carrier in a William Dieterle melodrama), and to say she failed to impress would be putting it lightly. It's already hard to particularly like the character, who is dropped into the movie without ceremony and proceeds to engage in a pointlessly meanspirited trick to win a man; Stone perhaps thought there was still a chance we'd feel sorry for her, and accordingly played the character as snappish and peremptory, drawing out all the shallowest, ditsiest parts of the character. What a fun way to spend an interminably long 65-minute horror flick!

One would never compare this film to White Zombie and conclude it was four years younger: it's rough and blocky in the manner of a crummy early sound film, lacking anything like a credible soundscape or any of the visual elegance of its bigger sibling, the story is crude and inexplicable, the acting stagey, the tone completely gaudy and not even a tiny bit horrifying. Perhaps it's as simple as the lack of a strong central performance like Lugosi's to anchor the movie, but I doubt it; it was likely just a case of lightning only striking once, and the men who showed off just how expressive American horror could be ended up proving, with equal force, just how far the same genre could sink in the hands of clumsy expression and a lack of visual invention.