A faux Abbott and Costello team walks with a zombie
Director: Gordon Douglas
Starring: Wally Brown, Alan Carney, Bela Lugosi, Anne Jeffreys, Sheldon Leonard, Darby Jones, and Sir Lancelot.
I watched this film on TV when I was a boy and I remember laughing my head off. On viewing it again, I am struck by the realization of how easily I was amused when I was a kid.
Wally Brown and Alan Carney were RKO Pictures' answer to Abbott and Costello, much like Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo's performances as faux Martin and Lewis in the notorious . This movie was the next to last in a series made by RKO in which they played their usual roles of Jerry Miles and Mike Streger. Given that Zombies on Broadway is reputedly their best movie, I don't regret never having seen any of the others.
In this film Brown and Carney play two New York press agents who work for mobster Ace Miller (portrayed by Sheldon Leonard, who specialized in these roles before becoming a top TV producer) who is opening a nightclub called The Zombie Hut. They have built the new club's publicity campaign around the claim that the floor show will feature a real zombie. Ace is not happy when their "real live zombie" turns out to be a very unconvincing imitation who is promptly recognized by members of the press.
So the boys find themselves dispatched to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian with orders to come back with a real zombie in time for the club's opening "or else". In this quest they are accompanied by cabaret singer Jean la Dance (Anne Jeffreys). Once they reach San Sebastian they meet Professor Renault (Bela Lugosi), a mad scientist who is seeking the secret of creating zombies. Of course, they encounter the real zombie they are seeking, played by zombie specialist Darby Jones.
Along with the puns, bad jokes, and assorted "schtick" - most of which is not all that funny - the film manages to build some authentically spooky atmosphere and there are some suitably creepy moments involving the shuffling zombie. Lugosi, as usual in these films, plays his role straight in most of his scenes but there are a few times where he shows that, contrary to his reputation, he really could do comedy. In one scene he performs his version of the old Three Stooge "dresser-with-a-life-of-it's-own" routine that is funnier than anything the two "comedians" do in the film.
Mike winds up getting a dose of the Professor's secret formula and is zombified. Jerry and Jean escape the villain's clutches and return to Manhattan with zombie Mike. At least now they have the promised zombie to headline The Zombie Hut's show. But the formula wears off just before Mike is supposed to perform, leaving the boys to face the wrath of the nightclub owner.
An interesting sidelight on this movie is the echoes in it of Val Lewton's I Walked With a Zombie, which is the best by far of the films it sets out to parody. Not only is the action set on the same imaginary Caribbean island as I Walked With a Zombie, but two key supporting cast members from that classic show up - the already mentioned Darby Jones and calypso great Sir Lancelot - in essentially the same roles.
Zombies on Broadway turned a profit for RKO, encouraging the studio to reteam Brown, Carney, Jeffreys and Lugosi in Genius at Work (1946), the film that ended the series.
The plot of Zombies on Broadway is enjoyably insane, the acting suitably broad, the music cheerful and brassy, and there are decent performances in some small roles -- such as that of Darby Jones. But it is the performance of Bela Lugosi that makes this movie worth seeing. Zombies on Broadway is pleasant, light entertainment but nowhere near as funny as I remembered it