In my continued attempt to highlight some of the best of the worst zombie-related horror flicks I’ve had the privilege of sitting through, today's featured movie is...
King of the Zombies (1941) begins with our hero (Bill Summers played by John Archer), his loyal servant (Mantan Moreland as Jefferson 'Jeff' Jackson), and pilot James 'Mac' McCarthy (Dick Purcell) flying over the Caribbean in search of a downed Navy Admiral. A savage storm forces the trio to crash land on a nearby island where they are fortunate to find the mansion residence of the creepy Dr. Mikhail Sangre (Henry Victor). Unfortunately, the trio find that the not-so-good doctor is mixing it up with Nazis, local voodoo rituals, and (you guessed it) zombies. Horror and hilarity ensue, the latter coming from Moreland’s portrayal of the trusty sidekick.
It would be easy (and understandable) to label Mantan Moreland’s performance as a racial stereotype of blacks in American society and entertainment during the 30’s and 40’s. Throughout the movie, you can see the “black face” caricature come through in Moreland’s mannerisms and dialogue. So if you you’ve actually watched the movie and hate it for that reason alone, I don’t blame you. But, for my part, what could easily be dismissed as uninspired, black-and-white horror film fodder is elevated to cult horror/comedy classic status behind Moreland’s comic genius. Along with such actors as Sam McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit, Moreland was the master of the nervous, easily terrified valet.
Aside from Moreland, the film doesn’t have too many highlights. Main baddie Henry Victor plays his part as a taller Bela Lugosi, which makes sense since Lugosi was the first choice for the evil Dr. Sangre (obviously, Lugosi declined, along with Peter Lorre). And at 67-minutes in length, King of Zombies feels like it could’ve been a really long Three Stooges skit or one of the Abbott and Costello meets (insert ghoul here) series of films. At least during its initial release, King of the Zombies was nominated for a Oscar in the Best Musical Score of a Dramatic Picture category. But don't let all that 1940s critical acclaim fool you; this is an entertaining b-movie romp of the undead variety.
Quote of note 1:
Main hero Bill Summer (John Archer): "When a man's dead he's dead."
Trust sidekick Jefferson 'Jeff' Jackson (Mantan Moreland): "Well supposin' he's dead and don't know it?"
Quote of note 2:
Kitchen maid Samantha (Marguerite Whitten): "Imagine that, us havin' a white zombie for dinner."
If you have anything other than a dial-up connection (or a lot of patience), you can actually watch the movie online for free courtesy of the Internet Archive. The public domain film is available for streaming and download right here.
However, if you feel the unexplained urge to add King of Zombies to your movie collection, the DVD is available here.