The stakes are pretty high for tribute parodies that mix old footage with a new storyline. Carl Reiner’s film noir tribute “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982) succeeded, thanks to new footage cleverly edited with Bogart, Grant, and company that’s at once limited and tribute worthy, with the right mix of sharp and zany humor. While Reiner had the mandatory expertise behind the camera and production values, aspiring low-budget filmmakers are left at a tough disadvantage.
Which brings us to “Terror in the Tropics,” in which writer/director A. Susan Svehla used “Dead Men” as an inspiration for a tribute to “Poverty Row” B-horror flicks of the 1930s and ‘40s (starring the likes of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr. when they couldn’t find work at a major studio). With a premise that will leave fans giddy, Svehla relies mostly on new B&W footage concerning a group of beneficiaries traveling to Fog Island to collect from the sons of the deceased, Vitus (the archival Lugosi) and Armand Tesla (Mark Redfield, “Chainsaw Sally”  and “Death of Poe” ). These and other character names provide all the in-jokes, while bits of horror and Lost World footage sneak in. It would be nice to have a film that incorporates “Poverty Row” highlights, as “Dead Men” works as a noir fan’s pocket collection, but “Terror’s” plot can’t make enough room for such. Karloff is long gone after opening clips from “The Ape” and the Mr. Wong films, and Lugosi, in “The Devil Bat” and later footage, also shows up briefly. When they finally appear, the film has the potential to work, until a prolonged stretch of new, lifeless scenes takes over. Their effect veers towards the detestable subplot filmed for the 30th Anniversary edition of “Night of the Living Dead” (thankfully forgotten) that, although slim, nearly destroyed the entire running time.
The new cast works with the ambition of a tight-knit community theater project. (Think of Mark Borchardt’s horror radio players at the beginning of “American Movie.”) Horror connoisseur Redfield goes to the nines with his Lugosi imitation, even though he’s physically more inclined to do Peter Lorre. While this enthusiasm is enough to forgive the film’s technical shortcomings (and roles that seem to have been filled last minute), it struggles too hard to spoof its fairly easy target.
As is often the case with lesser efforts, the DVD’s behind-the-scenes extras make the enterprise more likeable. After watching the actors’ testimonials on the joys of starring opposite the granddaddies of horror, you think more of their pleasure making the film than yours watching it. Also included is a mildly informative discussion on the “Poverty Row” studios by historian Gregory Mank, which seems to have been nabbed during a horror convention.