The world of the horror movie is a funny old place. Even in cinema, an area of entertainment where virtually anything is permissible, the horror genre always manages to go one better – or worse, depending on your point-of-view. So how is it that even within this much maligned field there are still some subjects which manage to raise the heckles of what are otherwise some of the most liberally minded of viewers.
Perhaps it is the connotations associated with the Nazis and their wartime atrocities, which still makes them a tentative subject for cinema in areas such as drama or adventure, let alone something like horror, frequently viewed with disdain by so many people. Combine this widely maligned military force with one of horror film’s most abhorrent and disturbing characters, the zombie, and you have a mix which is sure to disturb and distress audiences on a myriad of levels.
Along with the nobility of horror, Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein, the werewolves and mummies, zombies were one horror film’s earliest anti-heroes, appearing as far back as director Victor Hugo Halperin’s White Zombie (1932). On the face of it the appeal of zombies seemed rather limited – they fed on internal organs (with a particular penchant for grey matter) and, until such recent incarnations as those seen in World War Z (2013) where they have miraculously learnt to run, usually moved at nothing quicker than a shambling trot. However their characteristics – they are often found in groups and if you are capable of controlling them make an ideal, non-questioning force – lend themselves perfectly to one of the Nazis’, and their leader Hitler’s, main objectives – the establishment of a master race.
Other factors which played prominently in the marriage of Hitler’s henchmen with the walking dead (as zombies are often affectionately referred to), were those of medical experimentation and the occult. The Nazis’ supreme commander and his closest associates were known to have dabbled in human experiments, as well as having rumoured associations with the occult. Both these areas have also featured heavily in the methods used to create zombies, ever since the voodoo overtones of producer Val Lewton’s RKO classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943), as well as the obscene medical research carried out by Dr Obrero in director Marino Girolami’s notorious Zombi Holocaust (1980).
With these factors in mind it was inevitable that horror films would latch onto the zombie / Nazi combination as a breeding ground for a new and potentially rich sub-genre. However, being such a sensitive subject matter (a point which may explain why films within this genre are often leavened (both intentionally and otherwise) with an underlying air of black humour), it is perhaps unsurprising that it took cinema some time to see the potential of combining zombies with the worldwide threat posed by the Nazis. Though the freaky combination did feature a couple of times during the 1940s, it appeared to go completely dead following the end of World War II. Other than the occasional outing during the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1980s and the boom in horror with the notoriety of the video nasties, that the real zombiefication of the Nazis took off. Though, as said, the appeal of zombies on the face of it may appear limited, this doesn’t seem to have curtailed growth in an area which has grown consistently in recent years and, if current trends are anything to go by, shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
The first time that zombies and Nazis were tentatively combined was in the horror / comedy King of the Zombies (1941), produced and distributed by Monogram Pictures Corporation. A relatively flimsy plot featured Dick Purcell (later known for playing Marvel Comics’ Captain America in the 1943 film serial) as James “Mac” McCarthy who, along with his manservant Jefferson “Jeff” Jackson (played by comedian Mantan Moreland) crash-lands his plane on a seemingly deserted island. They soon discover however that the island is home to doctor Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor), a spy who, with the help of an army of the undead, is trying to obtain classified information from a captured US Admiral (Guy Usher) for use by a foreign power. The Nazis may never be named specifically, but the inference in the film, produced and released before America entered the war was clear, with the villainous doctor claiming to be Austrian and radio contacts spoken throughout in German. Also, though the zombies themselves were not actually German, the film can still lay claim to being the first time the two subjects were brought together.
It was only two years before Hollywood tried the combination again in what was to be the first film directly dealing with the zombie / Nazi theme and marketed as straight horror. Revenge of the Zombies (1943) (also known under the more crime / thriller’esque title of The Corpse Vanished), is a loose sequel to King of the Zombies in as far as it shares several of the same cast members. The film tells the story of mad scientist Dr Max Heinrich von Altermann (horror stalwart John Carradine) who, in his creepy mansion deep in the swamps of Louisiana, has created an army of zombies to help swell the ranks of the Third Reich. Inevitably his undead horde, under the control of his dead wife Lila (Veda Ann Borg) whom he has also reanimated, turn against him in a grisly climax, but not before there has been ample opportunity for midnight walks amongst the storm lashed swamps and laboratory scenes with pots of bubbling chemicals and electrical paraphernalia.
Though these early sojourns into the world of Hitler’s undead may seem tame when compared with their modern gory counterparts, they retain a certain quirky charm filled as they are with the typical contemporary scenarios of damsels in distress, mad scientists and buffed-up all-American heroes saving the day – as America would often claim later to have done with the real war.
As said following the end of World War II the mixing of zombies and Nazis, especially in the name of entertainment, became something of a taboo subject. Where during the war such films may have been welcomed as anti-German propaganda, from the latter 1940s to as late as the 1970s the horrors of that period were still too fresh for many to face, even in the generally liberal name of horror. Indeed for almost thirty years following the end of World War II the combination of zombies and Nazis were significant by their absence. Films which did emerge from this period however, including two films which surfaced during the 1960s and 1970s, were as memorable for their air of surreal creepiness as for any out and out horror; in these early films the reanimated Nazis killed their prey usually through strangulation as opposed to the method of eating their victims which is more associated with today’s zombies.
The British film The Frozen Dead (1966) was a case in point. Writer \ director Herbert J Leder’s sci-fi horror followed crazed Nazi scientist – can we see a theme already emerging? – Dr Norberg (Dana Andrews) who has frozen the heads of several Nazi leaders to keep them alive until he can find appropriate bodies to which to attach them and hence recreate the power of the Nazi army. Famous for featuring a young James Fox in a minor role, as well as the images of several bodies in German officer’s uniforms hanging in a walk-in deep freeze, and dozens of amputated arms emerging from a wall (reminiscent of those which light the beast’s château in Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece La belle et la bête (1946), what it lacks in outright horror The Frozen Dead more than makes up for with disturbing surrealness. It was followed over a decade later by Shock Waves (1977) – also titled Almost Human – an outing edged with the grimy sleaziness of many horror films that emerged during the 1970s. Following the now familiar scenario it stars Peter Cushing as a crazed Nazi commander who, having survived the war, has hidden himself on a remote island where he is attempting to revive any army of the undead in order to reestablish the glory of the Third Reich. Though intermittently unsettling (as in the scenes where the zombie army ascend from the tranquil seas surrounding the island to wreak havoc upon anyone who crosses their path), the film is most interesting for its pairing of Cushing and Revenge of the Zombies’ John Carradine as a hoary old sea-dog, who captains a pleasure boat which a group of hapless tourists hire to unwittingly take them to their deaths upon the said island.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the zombie / Nazi genre could be seen as taking off in a serious manner. Perhaps due to a suitable period of mourning (it was now forty years since the war), this decade saw almost as many films dealing with the subject released as had emerged during the preceding four decades. The 1980s saw several zombie / Nazi films coming from France, made by the notorious purveyors of European horror sleaze Jean Rollin and Jesús Franco. Zombie Lake (1981), is not only widely thought to be amongst the worst films ever made, but also to be the worst of Rollins (which is saying something when you consider some of his output) – it was years before Rollin himself would admit to having directed it, insisting that he be listed on the credits as J.A. Laser. Watching the film now you can understand why. A small lakeside town in rural France harbours a terrible secret. During World War II a group of French resistance fighters fought back against a troop of Nazi soldiers who invaded the town. Now it seems that the ghosts of the unfortunate soldiers have returned to exact grisly revenge upon the descendants of the original townsfolk. It would be tempting to pass this film off as one of those which is so bad it’s good. However, with Rollin’s trademark nudity (including a girl’s volleyball team who take an impromptu and short-lived skinny-dip in the possessed lake) and gore effects which don’t even make the slightest attempt at authenticity, this is a film which should only be watched by hard core fans of the genre.
Only marginally better is Oasis of the Zombies (1982), by fellow French director Jesús Franco. Sometimes confusingly known under several different titles including L’Abîme des Morts-Vivants (The Abyss of the Living Dead), Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies and Treasure of the Living Dead, this is simply another excuse for gratuitous nudity and sub-standard make-up effects. The story this time round focuses on a German army squadron during World War II who are assigned the task of transporting a shipment of Nazi gold across the African desert. Attacked by a group of Allied soldiers the treasure is lost in the desert, until decades later a band of treasure hunters happen across the lost gold. They do so to their cost however as it is guarded by the ambushed Nazis who have come back from the dead in order to protect their stolen loot. As you’d expect from an offering by the prolific Franco, this exercise though promising in bits (the zombie attacks in the desert oasis are strangely atmospheric with some graphically nasty gore scenes) is as a whole rather dull, again really only of interest to someone who wants to lay claim to having seen everything there is to see in the field.
One more film was released during this period which, though just as bad as the French productions, is watchable simply due to its over-the-top quality. In Hard Rock Zombies (1985) a rock band (reminiscent of Bon Jovi on a bad hair day) prepare to put on a concert for the inhabitants of a remote town called Grand Guignol. Unfortunately the town is peopled by a bizarre group of werewolves, killer dwarves and general weirdos all under the leadership of (you’ve guessed it) Hitler. After the members of the rock group are murdered in various gruesome ways by the townspeople, they are brought back to life by a young girl called Cassie, one of the few normal (normal being a relative term) people in the area. Once rejuvenated the members of the band wreak terrible revenge upon Hitler and his followers. The now dead Nazis in turn come back from the dead resulting in a climatic confrontation which turns the streets of the town into a blood soaked battle ground. Apart from the finale which looks like a cheap version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983), and despite the filmmakers obvious attempts at parody through the name of the town etc., Hard Rock Zombies on the whole has few saving graces. Indeed, watching this and the French duo, you can understand why during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s films featuring the direct correlation between zombies and Nazis were few and far between. In-fact it would the new millennium before cinema was to enter the golden age of zombie / Nazi horror, with the recent seemingly unstoppable resurrection of Hitler’s undead legions.
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The military usually likes to keep something in reserve, just incase their first plan of attack doesn’t work. The makers of horror films are no different, and are always looking for opportunities to diversify. Whilst cinema’s forays into the zombie / Nazi territory may have been intermittent in the early decades following World War II, there were a number of sojourns which, whilst not directly involving legions of reanimated German soldiers, did combine Nazi overtones with elements closely associated with the walking dead.
They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1969) (also called Madmen of Mandoras) was an American production which saw Nazi officials remove the living head of the Führer and take it to the imaginary South American country of Mandoras, where they planned to keep it until they could carry out their plans to resurrect the Third Reich. Forwarding to the 1960s the film then followed the surviving Nazi officers as they kidnapped a scientist to help keep Hitler alive until they could execute their fiendish plot. In a similar vein, and in an adventure which was to set the bizarre style which continued throughout the series, The Eagle’s Nest, the pilot episode of the 1970‘s television show The New Avengers, saw Steed, Gambit and Purdey set out to rescue the kidnapped scientist Professor Von Claus (played with his usual zest by Peter Cushing), from the remote Scottish island of St. Dorca, where he has been taken by a group of Nazis who hope that he will be able to resurrect Germany’s ‘greatest treasure’! Almost identical in their premise both of these stories were interesting in that they revolved around Hitler as the pivotal character, lending the proceedings, if not believability, at least a refreshingly unsettling twist.
Some other titles to emerge during this period, though their links with actual zombies may at first seem tenuous, still deserve mention is as far as they feature various aspects which connect them to the main core of the zombie / Nazi genre. Night of the Zombies (1981) (also released under the catchier title of Battalion of the Living Dead), an American production written and directed by Joel M. Reed and involving some warped logic linking the living dead with a group of Neo-Nazis, was so bad it has virtually sunk without trace. Slightly better was the third instalment of the long running Puppet Master series, Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge (1991). Set in Berlin during World War II, the film focuses on the Nazis’ efforts to reanimate the dead in order to swell the ranks of the Third Reich. Discovering the living dolls of puppet maker Andre Toulon (Guy Rolfe) the German hierarchy decide to use his evil creations for their own ends with predictably disastrous results. This series was to visit the dastardly marriage of Nazis and the undead again as we will see next time, however on this occasion suffice to say that though by no means a classic entry in the genre, this particular outing was done with enough feistiness that you can overlook its shortcomings.
One final film deserves mention, as it can be seen as giving this particular niche market of horror a certain mainstream respectability. Though stopping just short of having actual zombies, director Franklin J. Schaffner’s Oscar nominated classic The Boys from Brazil (1978), penned by horror maestro Ira Levin, featured everything you’d need to re-establish Hitler’s army. The story follows Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) who travels to Paraguay (South America does seem to be a favourite place for these guys to hang out), after he discovers a plot to re-establish the Third Reich through a cloning programme being carried out by Hitler’s doctor of terror Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck). Watched now this stylish thriller still chills the marrow, probably because it combines the threads which run through all zombie / Nazi films with a technology and science which sometime in the future could, just, happen. Now that’s enough to produce real nightmares.