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King of the Zombies
Tonight's Feature Presentation

KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941)

Starring: Dick Purcell, Joan Woodbury, Mantan Moreland, Henry Victor, John Archer

Written By: Edmond Kelso Directed By: Jean Yarbrough

The Short Version

For structure, imagine a “Scooby-Doo” episode where there really is a witch doctor.

Now imagine that it happens in the world of Jim Crow.

And don’t forget the Nazis, though they shall not be named!

King of the Zombies is very racist by any modern civilized standard.

This movie is only worthwhile in an academic sense as a piece of cultural/film history; you can find better fun out there.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

MOLDY.

Not really palatable anymore after being in the fridge for so long.


Pairs Well With...

MARGARITA.

Served properly, with lots of salt on the rim of the glass.  The nice lady in this movie’s kitchen notes that if zombies eat salt, they keel over.

“Eyes, if you look, I ain’t responsible for nothin’ you sees.”


For any modern audience with even a shred of civilized decency, one thing will become abundantly clear about King of the Zombies within the first few minutes of the film, and that is the fact that this movie is very, very racist.  It is indeed so much so that for many people, it will be impossible to get past this fact, and therefore impossible to enjoy to the movie.

I must admit that a large part of me considers this a wonderfully good thing, as it’s a sign that maybe, just maybe, we’re moving past some of our old societal stupidity.  One can only hope, right?

With that said, I’m also a big fan of history, and no fan of censorship.  For example, I consider the “Nigger Jim” debate over Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” to be ridiculous.  For one thing, if one actually bothers reading the book, it’s anti-racist, but even if it wasn’t, it still stands as a work of literature representative of its times, just as the unabashedly racist and sexist literature of Ian Fleming does.  You agree with its views, or you don’t, but there’s no reason to hack it up and deny future generations a glimpse at the past it represents or the opportunity to make up their own minds about it.  It is in a real sense like the Taliban blowing up the giant Buddha: a crime against culture, and a waste.  Part of knowing who we are comes from knowing where we’ve been.

That doesn’t mean, however, that something’s value or place cannot change over time.  What entertains now may not be all that entertaining several generations on; similarly, some things that may have entertained before don’t have the same luster now.  At that point, though certainly deserving of preservation, they lose their place on the shelf as viable pieces of mass entertainment, and relegate themselves to the archive of cultural history.  That, I think, is where the value of King of the Zombies now lies, and nowhere else.  It is a slice of its time, and as such, academically worthwhile, but as entertainment?  Folks, there are better zombie movies out there, I promise.

So what, exactly, do we get with this one?

We start with an airplane flying through a storm somewhere over the West Indies.  In it are pilot ‘Mac’ McCarthy (James Purcell), American government agent Bill Summers (John Archer), and Bill’s “valet” (cough), Jefferson ‘Jeff’ Jackson (Mantan Moreland).  They’re almost out of gas, and if they don’t find land soon, they’re going to be dead.  Fortunately, just as things look dire, they home in on the source of a strange radio signal.  Where there’s a radio transmitter, there are bound to be people, so that seems like as good an indicator of a landing spot as any, right?  With this in mind, Mac takes the plane down, and crashes it as gently as possible into an island.

After being knocked out by the impact, the three awaken to find that they’ve crashed right on top of a graveyard.  (Or a “marble garden”, as one of them calls it.)  They see no sign of a radio transmission station, but they do see a creepy old house nearby, and make their way to it.  Once inside, the meet the home’s master, Dr. Sangre (Henry Victor), who introduces himself as an Austrian refugee, and offers them the shelter of his home.  It does not take the three stranded men long to discover that they’re not the only guests in the house, and that some of those guests, while still ambulatory, are no longer necessarily among the living, either…

As suggested above, King of the Zombies is a slice of its time.  The Old World of Europe had already been at war for some time, but the New World of America wasn’t there yet when this movie was released in May of 1941.  Indeed, though it was clear where President Roosevelt’s sympathies were, and many Americans agreed with him, much of the country was still quite isolationist in its thinking.  The only thing everyone could agree on, really, was that they were nervous.  For this audience, King of the Zombies sought to bring together three things: a horror flick such as those that had been so popular for the past decade, some comedy for people who could probably use a laugh, and a wee bit of current events material about that little war in Europe.

This current events material comes from the fact that our mysterious Dr. Sangre (literally “Dr. Blood”) is a spy trying to extract vital military information from an American Admiral he has captive in the island.  (The horror element comes from the fact that he has built himself up a little zombie army and uses voodoo witchcraft as his means of trying to extract the information.)  Culturally interesting is the fact that while he is very, very obviously a Nazi spy – he speaks with a German accent and he speaks German when barking orders to his zombies or talking into the radio – the movie goes out of its way to never use the words “Nazi,” “German,” or “Germany.”  Indeed, even though Mac and Bill clearly hear German being spoken over the plane’s radio and again at the house, they claim out loud that they have no idea what the language is, despite the fact that anyone who has ever ordered beer or sausage in his or her lifetime would have a nine in ten shot of guessing at the very least.  This is in part because the producers feared angering pro-German film censors in America.

So, saying bad things about Nazis, not okay.  Saying bad things about dark-skinned people from your own country, though?  Go nuts!

Every ounce of the intended comedy of King of the Zombies derives from racial stereotyping at the expense of Jeff the “valet”, which appears to be code for “slave we don’t beat up.”  (This also extends beyond the “jokes;” for example, when Sangre – the Nazi! – offers all three of his new arrivals brandy, Jeff is given an extremely dirty look by Bill – the freedom loving American! – and thus not allowed to partake.  Apparently the booze is only good enough for Whitey.)  Jeff is written as a loud, boisterous coward who blunders into all kinds of nastiness but whom no one ever believes because hey, he’s the dumb black servant, right?  Take out the racial overtones, and a good modern analog would be a Scooby-Doo episode, switching out both Scooby and Shaggy for Jeff, and assuming that there really is a witch doctor on the island.

It’s too bad that all of the jokes are at his own expense, too, because Mantan Moreland really is a dynamite comedic actor.  His expressiveness and sense of timing are absolutely brilliant, often bringing to mind a slightly louder version of Lou Costello.  Unfortunately, though, the material is just too densely racist to generate anything but a guilty chuckle from a civilized modern audience.  This, in turn, completely damns the rest of the movie, because it’s plain to see that Moreland’s performance is the only part of King of the Zombies that was ever worth watching to begin with.

The rest of the cast is wooden and forgettable.  As for the zombies, they’re pretty much the same.  This is too bad, because there’s some real potential here to do something worthwhile with those zombies (which here are close offshoots of actual West Indies legend, though instead of being real walking dead, they’re just people who have been hypnotized into believing that they’re walking dead), and even more so to do something worthwhile with the other sinister voodoo that Sangre is up to.  However, everything has been cast aside in favor of the now-outdated comedy, with the zombies serving only as something to scare Jeff with, and the voodoo only really brought to the fore at the end.

As for that end… even forgetting all of the elements that have come before and just looking at that ending straight up, it has to be one of the single most idiotic horror endings ever.  I guarantee you’ve seen variants on it many times, but usually they involve some sort of tension or a few moments of played-out inner conflict.  This?  “Hey, don’t kill me!  Kill him instead!”  Done.  Yawn.

Bottom line, King of the Zombies really wasn’t a very good movie to begin with, and its heavy handed racism makes it totally unpalatable for modern civilized sensibilities.  As such, the way I see it, this movie is only worthwhile in an academic sense as a piece of cultural/film history.  Otherwise, you can find better entertainment.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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