Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

An old (way old!) classic horror movie today, back when "horror" had a totally different meaning to it. Occasionally, I enjoy watching these early genre movies, just to remind myself how crappy today's style of filmmaking (more explosions and boobs!) really is.

On to the show...

We open in France during the darkest days of WWI. A French colonial regiment from Cambodia (stick around to the end and I'll explain) has brought along a Buddhist priest, and this mysterious and wrinkly old guy happens to be the last descendent of a revered Khmer god-king. As such, the priest knows the fabled secret of zombiefication, which his ancestors practiced back in the day.

The priest stands up tall.

Attached to the colonial regiment is a French liaison officer named Armand, who is fascinated by the mystical history of the ancient Cambodian kings. Mulder-like, Armand is convinced that the priest's story is true and that zombies are scientific fact, despite everyone blowing him off. Eventually, though, he manages to convince enough higher-ups that the danger of (or the promise of) an invincible zombie army is real.

Armand in full dress.

The generals are worried this will be the "end of the white race" if the "Orientals" get the secret of zombie armies before them (though for some reason they often call them "robots" or "automatons"). The French Army tries to force the silent priest to give them the secret, but he refuses and they have to lock him up for the good of the world.

Do French generals still dress like this? I sure hope so, because that is a pimpin' hat.

An mustachioed Evil Frenchie Colonel also wants to know the secret, for his own nefarious plans, and he's not above murder to get it. However, he gets only a fragment of the secret before he unwisely kills the Cambodian priest with a dagger.

Buddha is not pleased with the Evil Frenchie Colonel.

Fast forward a few years. After the war ends, an international expedition travels to Cambodia to locate and destroy the secret of zombie-making. It's a very civilized, Edwardian style archeological endeavor, with coolies serving tea, pith helmets for the men, and formal evening dances in coats and tails, all set against back-projected stock footage vistas of the legendary city of Angkor Wat. Months go by and, while they do a lot of deciphering and chiseling, they still can't find the secret.

Natives against the backdrop.

As they all have a lot of time to get to know each other on this long expedition (as they tended to be back in the day), Armand and a young, strapping Englishman named Cliff vie for the attentions of the fair Claire, daughter of the expedition's leader. Claire is pretty cute (for a flapper) but she's also the only girl on the trip, which gives her a monopoly on gushy love poems and held-open doors and all that.


As this is 1936, sadly, Claire can be little more than an attractive bundle of giggles and curly hair, easily swooned by handsome men and powerless to resist her own urges. She rashly gets engaged to Armand, who, while he's fully aware she's out of his league, is deliriously happy. Claire, however, really loves Cliff, but hooked up with Armand just to make Cliff jealous (women suck).

Armand needs to work on his lady-fu.

Eventually, the love triangle becomes obvious to everyone. To his credit, Armand realizes that, though she's still wearing his ring, he's already lost her and gracefully lets her go. While he's clearly dying inside, his tragic lack of self-esteem won't allow him to do more than force on a fake smile and sulk in the corner. Claire and Cliff begin a very public and very affectionate relationship, further straining Armand's already fragile sanity.


Meanwhile, strange things are plaguing the expedition. Coolies turn up dead, ropes are cut, and an old English archaeologist ends up in a wheelchair after a nasty fall. Beset by all these troubles, the expedition packs it in and returns to Phnom Penh (Cambodia's capital). Now, I know what you're thinking, "The movie's half over, where the heck are my zombies?". I'm kinda curious about that as well, but I feel like things are picking up, so lets all just be patient.

"He's just fallen from a scaffold! Quick, check his pulse!"

Armand takes all his impotent, jealous rage and redirects it into an obsession with zombies. He goes back to Angkor on his own, with just his pith helmet and his flashlight, to discover the secret that has eluded them all. He follows a local guy in a sarong through a back-projected swamp and into a temple that looks suspiciously like a set from DeMille's The Ten Commandments. There he finds a hidden stone tablet that shows him the secret in a handy pictorial style. And then he has to run from a huge rolling boulder...

I like a little bit of Dynastic Egypt in my Cambodian temples.

Armand is subsequently fired by the expedition leader for taking an unapproved leave (worst boss ever), but he doesn't care anymore. While awaiting a ship back home to France, he does some experiments on his own with some chemical concoctions (did the stone tablet show him how to mix this?). He then converts his unwitting local Khmer servant into a zombie! But, hey, it's ok, the guy was, you know, foreign.

Conducting experiments.

The Evil Frenchie Colonel discovers Armand's new powers and calls his hand, as he wants the zombie-making ability for himself. But his ego and his total lack of peripheral vision make him an easy target for Armand's zombie servant and his strangling hands of death. It was never clear just what or who the Evil Frenchie Colonel was working for, he may have just been freelancing his own dreams of power and glory, but I'm glad he's gone (he gave me the creeps with that skinny mustache).

"I surrender!"

Armand uses powers to zombiefy a bunch of local Khmer soldiers and all the Europeans in the expedition. The one unique touch here is that the zombie soldiers still can, and do, use firearms (in most zombie movies, the undead just use their bloody claws to eat your brains). Armand really should be concentrating on raising an army of undead soldiers to march out and take over the world, but he's got other plans.

Hmm...he doesn't look like a zombie (and he also looks Hispanic...).

No surprise, but Armand is only interested in getting Claire back any way that he can. As a last favor to her, Armand doesn't zombiefy Cliff, but does order him out of the country posthaste. But when Armand sees that, despite his best machinations, Cliff and Claire are still really in love, he turns Cliff into a zombie anyway. Unresolved jealously leads to spitefulness, proven fact.

"Nope, no boogers in there, you're clean."

Armand then forces Claire to marry him under duress, in a ceremony surely officiated by a zombie priest and accompanied by a zombie organist, which is simply beyond awesome to contemplate. Again, all this mess over airhead, no-boob Claire! If Armand were to think this one through, once he's conquered the world with his zombie army, he could have any woman on the planet (except Ann Curry, she's mine).

Goddamn it, Matt Lauer! I told you to keep your hands off her!

While he should just put the zombie mojo on Claire and get her to make him a sandwich and put on the Princess Leia slave girl costume, Armand is too much a gentleman to do that. So he's left with a surly, uncooperative wife who won't clean the bathroom and tapes over his football games. Eventually, Armand sees the error of his ways, and even admits it to Claire. She says she'll forgive him only if he drops the zombie thing, as it's a bummer.

Always suit-up before talking to the ladies, Barney Stinson taught me that.

So, for love, Armand relinquishes his zombie mind-lock on everyone and we see them shaking their heads and blinking as if to say, "What happened?". Finally fulfilling the title's promise, the (ex-)zombie soldiers revolt and kill their former master Armand. And with that, the secret of the zombies is lost forever (or at least until the 1960s...).

"Get 'em!"

The end.

So, anyway, a quick and pointless history lesson for you all. When you think of World War I you usually think of white guys with bad teeth from Western Europe slogging it out in the trenches of Flanders, right (or, if you are like me, monochromatic beagles on dog houses battling invisible German triplanes)? Well, little known fact, but there were actually tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Khmer troops fighting and dying on the Western Front in "Colonial Battalions" (usually ill-trained rice farmers press-ganged into service). Indochina was a French colony back then and as such they provided troops and material support to the French war effort back home (the streets of Saigon are actually named after famous WWI battles that Vietnamese soldiers fought in). And now you know, go forth.

Written in April 2010 by Nathan Decker.

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