20090823

Film Review: King of the Zombies (1941)



Directed by Jean Yarbrough, written by Edmond Kelso, and starring Dick Purcell, Joan Woodbury, Henry Victor, John Archer, Patricia Stacey, Marguerite Whitten, and Guy Usher.

"During World War 2, a small plane off the south coast of America is low on fuel and blown off course by a storm. Guided by a faint radio signal, they crashland on an island. The passenger, his manservant and the pilot take refuge in a mansion owned by a doctor. The easily-spooked manservant soon becomes convinced the mansion is haunted by zombies and ghosts. Exploring, the 3 find a voodoo ritual in the cellar, where the doctor is trying to acquire war intelligence by transferring personalities into his zombies. But the interruption causes the zombies to turn on their creator."

I truly adore classic cinema like King of the Zombies. I simply can't get enough, especially between the 1930's and 1950's. Add into the mix a handful of voodoo zombies, and I have very few complaints. As a matter of fact, I'm one of the few people that still seem to be intrigued by voodoo zombies, which are few and far in between, just as much as the living dead or the infected. Enough about all of that though. King of the Zombies, unlike White Zombie nine years prior, is the first official zombie horror/comedy, and even after all of these years it's still one of the best. I'd just like to note that the movie The Ghost Breakers, which released one year prior, was a comedy, but only featured one 'zombie', and didn't really have much to do with the main plot. In what would be an otherwise standard and mediocre horror movie, the hilarious performance of Mantan Moreland as Jeff, the wisecracking, suspicious servant accompanying the two men to the Bahamas, was masterful to say the least. It's funny that even back in the forties black people were the voice of reason in horror movies. White people never listen, and that's why they always die.
The movie begins with a plane crash that had me already laughing. I understand the budget was small, so it wasn't the poor production value that I got a kick out of. They're on their way to the Bahamas and they didn't have enough gas to make it through the storm? Then the pilot sees 'an opening' that could best be described as a group of trees, and proceeded to land on top of them. I can tell you one thing: I would never fly with such an incompetent pilot over an ocean. Following the crash is one of the most comedic scenes in the movie when Jeff thinks himself dead, and Mac and Bill convince him otherwise. Even after this, there are a handful of classic lines by Moreland that I won't spoil for you. Moreland truly is the redeeming gem in this great horror/comedy, and I fully intend on checking out his other work. King of the Zombies has a pretty standard story, with a villain using voodoo magic to create zombie slaves on his island, but what's really worth mentioning is the hidden enemy that's never named: the Nazis. Behind the scenes, Dr. Miklos Sangre, the film's villain, is attempting to interrogate the recently crash-landed Admiral Arthur Wainwright in hopes of discovering military intelligence that he can radio to an unknown recipient. "Produced and released prior to Pearl Harbor, the film oddly dances around blatant references to Nazi Germany. While the villain is decidedly Germanic, radio traffic is spoken in German and there's spoken references to spying, neither Germany or Nazis are ever overtly mentioned. The plot, described in the presskit describes the evil Dr. Sangre as 'a secret agent for a European government.' The powers at Monogram were probably acutely mindful of the problems independent producer Ben Judell encountered when trying to exhibit Hitler - Beast of Berlin (1939) two years earlier. That film was unable to pass local pro-Germany censorship boards and Judell went broke."

Just as in White Zombie, the well-crafted atmosphere adds immensely to the overall effect of the film, most especially in the scenes in the cellar/kitchen and the voodoo witch doctor's soul transmigration dance. The acting is superb, most notably by Mantan Moreland, Joan Woodbury, Marguerite Whitten, and Henry Victor. Whitten and Woodbury were two truly enchanting ladies. The comedy is just pure gold and worth seeing on those merits alone. Yet, the movie has a few faults in its own right, namely the short run time, which reaches just barely over an hour. I would have enjoyed watching additional thirty minutes, especially considering how quickly the movie seems to wrap up. The small budget, which sometimes works in its favor, could easily have justified a larger sum in its production. One also has to consider the era in which the film was made when viewing, as there are quite a few racial references, that despite adding more reason for Moreland's character to crack another joke, tend to hinder itself in a politically correct world these days. It's not overly prominent, but still quite noticeable. One interesting little reference I found amusing was the main zombie being named Lazarus. Also, as with seemingly all horror movies during this time, Bela Lugosi was considered for a role in the film, the role of Dr. Sangre, but became unavailable. This doesn't hinder the movie though, as Henry Victor is a perfectly capable actor. All things considered, King of the Zombies is an excellent movie, and a pleasant view into the past of a now booming sub-genre of zombie horror. Don't pass this one up. I have my own copy of the movie, but for those who don't, I've posted the now public domain film from YouTube just below.

Best quote: "If there's one thing that I wouldn't wanna be twice, zombies is both of 'em."

3 comments:

Mykal said...

Ryan: Agree on this one 100%. Long been a favorite and very typical of the great output from Monogram Studios - one of the best of the poverty row studios. You've pretty much said it all. If you like this, you might try another from director Jean Yarbough - The Devil Bat with Bela Lugosi - it might not be a zombie picture, but it is still very, very good.

Great post for a seldom appreciated gem. -- Mykal

cialis online said...

To be honest, I hate this kind of movies but you must add some informations related, for example: Zombies became a popular device in modern horror fiction, largely because of the success of George A. Romero's film Night of the Living Dead. 23jj

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