“Zombies on Broadway” (1945)
by A.J. Hakari
As if being denied eternal rest and condemned to walk the earth with an insatiable hunger wasn’t enough, zombies have suffered further indignities during their time in the cinematic limelight. For every George A. Romero elevating flesh-eating ghouls to compelling thematic heights, there are dozens of deluded “successors” waiting in the wings with interminable, no-account gore shows (and if you’ve seen Survival of the Dead, you know that not even Grandpa George’s track record is spotless). This humiliation also extends to the classic image of the living damned, wherein poor souls were drugged and/or mesmerized via dark rituals into becoming mindless slaves. Outside of those plodding Poverty Row chillers of the time, the worst this got back then arguably has to be 1945’s Zombies on Broadway, a comedic creepfest hailing from RKO. This movie had a shot at being the sort of zany retro kitsch that’s fondly discussed by outfits like “Trailers from Hell” nowadays, were it not for the forced laughs, forgettable tunes, and sheer wastefulness of its (ostensibly) main draw undermining it at every turn.
There isn’t a person in the Big Apple that hasn’t heard about the Zombie Hut. Run by ex-gangster Ace Miller (Sheldon Leonard), the tropical-themed club is all set for a killer opening night…that is, until the press agents hired to hype it up bite off more than they can chew. Jerry Miles (Wally Brown) and Mike Strager (Alan Carney) boast that a real, live zombie will be among the Hut’s attractions, a promise that Ace doesn’t intend on leaving unfulfilled. Wanting to avoid embarrassment at any cost, he ships the boys off to the isle of San Sebastian to drum up an actual walking corpse — and as it turns out, they haven’t far to look. Professor Renault (Bela Lugosi) is working in secret on the island, toiling away at his long-gestating formula for creating the perfect obedient zombie. Eventually, Jerry and Mike bumble their way to Renault’s front door, but before their night of horrors is over, will they end up being transformed into the very ghouls they were sent to haul back to the States?
Not content with just existing as an exhausting, ill-advised, dated-on-arrival mess unto itself, Zombies on Broadway has to drag other, genuinely great flicks down with it, too. What with being an RKO production in the years following Val Lewton’s famed run of the studio’s horror unit, this picture incorporates particular elements from a few of those projects. In playing Renault’s undead man Friday, Darby Jones essentially reprises his frightfully iconic character from I Walked with a Zombie, as does singer Sir Lancelot (who also appeared in such Lewton thrillers as The Ghost Ship and The Curse of the Cat People). While viewers unfamiliar with these actors or their places in horror history would be none the wiser, seeing what was once taken seriously and depicted as legitimately unnerving mere years earlier turned into a bad punchline makes Zombies on Broadway feel doubly irritating for seasoned fans. But even without an intricate knowledge of vintage genre cinema, one can tell right off the bat how unappealing and uninspired the film’s comedic set-ups really are. Working off of a completely ludicrous premise to begin with (in which avoiding false advertising charges are taken to a whole other level), the movie resorts to incessant mugging and routines that “Scooby-Doo” would handle with more tact in increasingly vain, desperate efforts to tickle our funny bones.
It’s not even that I set out to hate Zombies on Broadway, given my proclivity for the sort of cheesy tidbits stored within its framed. Old-school horror comedies with creepy mansions, secret passageways, and the occasional shoehorned musical number more often than not trip yours truly’s trigger. All of these and more are at play in Zombies on Broadway, and yet none wield the charm or cleverness as they did in similar, fear-based farces. This is partially the fault of a threadbare script that recycles tired scenarios without adding anything new (a la Mike seeing zombies that disappear and getting yelled at by a disbelieving Jerry), but blame also falls upon the production’s very headliners. Though Brown and Carney seem to be genial gents, their go-to defense mechanism when the sub-par material threatens to sink them is to launch a barrage of hollering and stammering that only leaves them resembling a cut-rate Abbott & Costello. As a San Sebastian chanteuse, Anne Jeffreys is fine (though she gets to sing maybe one so-so song and plays a mostly superfluous part), but no one has it worse here than Bela Lugosi. Not only has another clichéd mad scientist role that offers him no opportunities to lampoon said archetype been hoisted upon him, Lugosi finds himself further debased by having to play a handful of scenes opposite a monkey (who, in all fairness, does earn the movie’s biggest chuckles).
Neither funny or freaky to any significant degree, Zombies on Broadway mainly spends its time confusing you with the question of who it exactly hoped to entertain. Its soundtrack is severely understocked, eerie atmosphere is out of the question, and while the screenplay’s gags come across as weak sauce these days, one can easily picture them feeling old hat upon the flick’s release. No matter what reason might draw you to Zombies on Broadway, you’re all but guaranteed to be left underwhelmed and unamused in the end.