Over the course of film history, zombies have evolved from the reanimated Haitian voodoo corpses in White Zombie to the swarming disease infected victims in World War Z. They have rambled aimlessly in Night of the Living Dead and sprinted purposefully in 28 Days Later. In 1946, Republic Pictures showed the world a zombie that had never been seen before and hasn’t been replicated since in their Valley of the Zombies.
Valley of the Zombies begins with Dr. Maynard (Charles Trowbridge from The Mummy’s Hand) explaining to Dr. Terry Evans (Ron Livingston from The Lone Ranger) and Nurse Susan Drake (The Man They Could Not Hang’s Lorna Gray) that someone has been stealing blood from the hospital’s supply. No sooner do Terry and Susan leave than a shadowy figure appears, a man by the name of Ormand Murks (Ian Keith from It Came from Beneath the Sea). After some coaxing, Maynard recognizes Murks as a man that the good doctor had committed to a mental institution four years earlier. When Maynard remembers that the man died while incarcerated, Murks reveals that he is, in fact, dead, and needs blood to survive, blood which he has been stealing from the hospital. When Maynard tells Murks that the hospital is out of his blood type, Murks suddenly remembers that Maynard has the correct blood type and murders him to feed. When the body is found, perfectly embalmed by the murderer, Terry and Susan are suspected by a pair of bumbling detectives by the names of Blair (Thomas Jackson from The Face of Marble) and Hendricks (Texas Terror’s LeRoy Mason). With no hard evidence, the pair is released, but Terry and Susan decide to solve the mystery of their colleague’s death themselves. Their quest leads them to a graveyard and mausoleum that are conveniently located next door to a spooky mansion – a mansion belonging to Ormand Murks. As the couple gets deeper and deeper into the intrigue, more and more bodies start to pile up and they realize that they can’t depend on the incompetent policemen to save them; they’ll have to take care of Murks themselves.
Contrary to its name, Valley of the Zombies contains only one zombie, and he doesn’t hail from a valley; the title is a reference to one of Murks’ long-winded monologues. The screenplay was written by Stuart and Dorrell McGowan (The Littlest Hobo) from an original story by frequent Republic Pictures collaborators Royal K. Cole and Sherman L. Lowe (Black Arrow, The Monster and the Ape). Directed by Philip Ford (who would go on to direct episodes of “Lassie” and “Adventures of Superman” for T.V.), it was one of Republic’s B pictures: short, cheaply produced, and meant to be programmed as half of a double feature. Combining elements of horror, noir mystery, crime drama, and comedy, Valley of the Zombies is a versatile enough film to play on any bill.
While Cole and Lowe have supplied a story that is both unique and clever, the McGowan brothers camp it up with their script. The screenplay is very dialogue-heavy, with a great deal of exposition coming in the form of speeches and diatribes. Furthermore, the style of talk tries very hard to be hip and beatnik, with the detectives searching for a “peculiar party that has a passion for pickling” and Susan wanting to “play bee and buzz away from here.” The dialogue is completely unnatural, nonorganic – and perfect for the silliness that is Valley of the Zombies.
The character of Ormand Murks is an interesting one. Although claiming to be a zombie, his lust for blood and eagerness to talk make him seem more like a vampire. Ian Keith, who was a veteran of many silent films and a runner-up for the title role in Universal’s Dracula, gives a performance that is dominant, almost Karloff-esque in mannerism and vocal inflection. He is both creepy and campy, and carries the film despite its flawed and awkward dialogue.
Valley of the Zombies is a wonder of simplicity. The entire film takes place in basically three places – the hospital, the graveyard/mausoleum, and the Murks mansion – and all are suitable spooky. The film is as comical as it is frightening, and the two elements overlap frequently. For example, in one scene a ghostly hand reaches for Susan. She looks back towards it right as it pulls away, then it reaches again…and again and again in a crazy game of hide and seek. In another scene, Terry and Susan are walking to the graveyard when they run into a horrifying…cow. The film is full of diffused scares like these, and they keep Valley of the Zombies from getting too heavy.
It’s not all laughs and chuckles in Valley of the Zombies, however. There are a few moments that play upon primal fears, and they are fairly frightening. At one point, Terry and Susan are locked in the mausoleum, and the claustrophobia of the characters spills out into the audience. In another scene, Susan is handcuffed to a cabinet in Murks’ mansion while footsteps can be heard upstairs…walking across the floor…then to the staircase…then down the staircase…all while she can’t run away. The viewer feels trapped with her. Although the movie as a whole is satirical, there are parts of Valley of the Zombies that remind the audience that they are, in fact, watching a horror film.
Despite zombies being a used and overused horror movie trope, Valley of the Zombies successfully breathes a bit of originality into the concept. Valley of the Zombies is both hysterical and horrifying, sometimes at the same time. And, at a running time of about an hour, it’s easily worth the time and energy to check it out.
**Watch the movie now on Amazon: Valley Of The Zombies**