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Ancient Angkor zombie warriors rise again

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Cambodian zombie soldiers overrun Austrian troops in WW1. Photograph supplied

About a thousand years ago the Khmer kings turned their people into tireless and feelingless human machines, called them zombies, and sent them to war against their enemies and to work on the construction site of Angkor Wat. Worse still, the kings’ ancient formula for zombifying people still exists, and is misused for warfare today.

Sounds a bit far out? Well it is. It’s the whacko theory according to an uber-schlock film called Revolt of the Zombies, which has the distinction of probably being one of the worst movies ever made for cinema. The low-budget potboiler from 1936 was written and directed by Victor and Edward Halperin, who had invented a new subgenre with their horror film White Zombie (1932), starring Dracula-actor Bela Lugosi.

Their follow-up, Supernatural (1933), was similarly groundbreaking and nearly as good. But Revolt of the Zombies contained everything to destroy the Halperins’ reputation with one strike.

The story is crude, the acting stagey, the tone not even a tiny bit horrifying. The plot starts on the Franco-Austrian frontier during World War I. The French imported a few units of Cambodian troops from their colony to pick up the slack on subsidiary fronts while they were busy fighting against the Germans elsewhere. The Cambodians are not under the command of a soldier, but of a monk named Tsiang (William Crowell), and are in fact zombies, created and controlled by a magical formula that was handed down from the ancient Khmer kings.

Tsiang’s invulnerable Cambodians capture an Austrian trench all by themselves, but instead of being happy, French general Duval (George Cleveland) worries about the future of the white race and wants to make sure that his formidable occult knowledge is never used again.

After the war, General Duval forms an expedition and travels to Cambodia to find and destroy forever the so-called "Secret of the Zombies" in the ruins of Angkor Wat.

And this is where all the trouble starts. Revolt of the Zombies does not really take place in Cambodia so much as it takes place in front of exceptionally obvious giant photographs. The Halperin brothers sent a camera crew to Angkor in 1935 to make some background shots for the film. Production in the US was behind schedule in January 1936 with no script complete. They began on March 9 with the shoot being finished later in the month. The movie was released in US cinemas in June 1936.

The film is barely an hour long, but moves at a snail’s pace so it seems feature-length. The viewer may get some amusement from the faked studio shots, when people stand stock-still in front of the photos of Angkor Wat. Worst of all, there are no realistic zombies in the movie. They call them zombies, but except for one early shot in which an Austrian soldier fires five bullets into a soldier’s chest without seeming to bother him, there is no indication that we are dealing with the walking dead. It seems to be simple matter of mind control.

Although Bela Lugosi is not credited in the film, his eyes appear in Revolt of the Zombies whenever zombifying powers are used in the film. These eyes were taken from the Halperin brothers’ earlier success movie White Zombie, which contains realistic zombies and is by far the better choice for the next DVD-night with fellow horror buffs.

Revolt of the Zombies is in the public domain, can be distributed without regard to copyright laws. It is available free on the internet, including YouTube.

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