KING OF THE ZOMBIES/1949 /MANTAN MORELAND
1941/Director: Jean Yarbrough/Writer: Edmond Kelso
King of the Zombies was a feature put out in 1941 by Monogram Pictures –later to become Allied Artist Pictures- which was part of a small group of studios known as Poverty Row, so called because of the low budgets they worked on. Monogram was noted for action and adventure fare and they may be best remembered for the Charlie Chan series that featured in some episodes black actor Mantan Moreland as Charlie Chan’s chauffer Birmingham Brown. Moreland appears in the silly but entertaining King of the Zombies and its sequel Revenge of the Zombies (1943). In King of the Zombies Mantan Moreland steals the show from the lame leads played by Dick Purcell and John Archer though his sometimes over the top portrayal of a bug-eyed and trembling manservant has garnered some pretty negative comments about the actor online. I touched on the usually negative roles offered to blacks in movies of this period (thank God that all the ‘hood’ and gangsta’ films of today have freed blacks from all these negative stereotypes) in an early post on the film The Monster Walks starring Willie Best (cast sometimes as Sleep-n-Eat, perhaps the worst name ever for a black actor) and I would like to touch on the topic a bit more but I will save that for the end of the post I guess. I will say that a connection exists between Best and Moreland and in that they both wound up buried in Valhalla cemetery in Hollywood. I don’t think Mantan’s grave was unmarked like Willie Best’s but I understand they are situated near one another.
The movie would really be forgettable to most everybody except fans of cheese cinema and zombie films enthusiasts and historians. Some people have noted correctly that the film is a stepping off point in some respects in the evolution of zombie movies from people being controlled by some sort of voodoo spell to the flesh eating monsters we have come to know and love since Romero’s 1967 ghoul-fest Night of the Living Dead. One new addition to the then zombie theme that does not appear to have existed prior to King of the Zombies is that the zombies are actual reanimated corpses. They are still controlled by a voodoo priest though in this case the voodoo priest is a white, Nazi, albeit his political ties are only hinted at in the barely pre-war film. Monogram did not want to offend the Germans or limit the film’s potential market and even made the bad guy, played by Henry Victor, an Austrian. I guess offending Austrians was okay. Another element that comes into the film that appears, again, to new to the zombie film formula is the idea that the zombies could be flesh eaters. The zombies never cannibalize anybody and the concept remains confined to the nervous jokes of manservant Jefferson Jackson (Moreland). I am not a zombie expert and while I do own the exhaustive ZOMBIE MOVIES: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE there is no real mention of these historically crucial matters in their review of the film.
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The story takes place on a small island somewhere near the Bahamas where our heroes Bill Summers and ‘Mac’ McCarthy (Purcell and Archer) are forced to crash land their plane after a storm has blown it off course. It is a jungle island but as in the rule in any jungle movie where a plane has to crash land –even at night in a raging storm- the pilot will locate a clear stretch of land long enough and wide enough to land the plane with minimal damage to the craft. Also in the plane is the jittery and bug-eyed Birmingham Brown (Moreland) who stays in a terminal state of terror and unrest while the other two remain calm and collected at all times. Even when they realize they have crash landed in a graveyard it is only the nervous, superstitious manservant who feels any sense of dread. That dread is compounded when they have to stay in the house of Dr. Miklos Sangre –perhaps the most un-Austrian sounding name ever put to film- where poor Brown seems to be the only aware of the danger lurking around every corner. He soon becomes aware that zombies are being kept in the basement servent’s area where he has been trying to make some time with maid Samantha (Marguerite Whitten). Zombies often appear to the sound of voodoo drums and lack any real makeup. Birmingham Brown himself believes he is a zombie –even though he can talk and make decisions on his own- and Moreland turns in some truly comedic moments. Also in the mix is the spooky manservant of Sangre’s named Momba, a witch (Madame Sul-Te-Wan, also buried in Valhalla cemetery near best and Moreland) who spends her time stirring up potions in a huge black kettle and mumbling incantations, Barbara Sangre who is under her evil husband’s spell and Sangre’s niece Alyce who wants to help our heroes escape the island and twart her uncle’s sinister plan of using his voodoo magic to gain secret military information from a captive US Admiral. I guess the film is maybe the first or one of the first to mix zombieism with Nazism which would become a strange sub-genre of zombie films later on.
I did not dislike the movie and while some of the roles by the black actors can seen as demeaning I really can’t say I was shocked or offended by anything. This is not the case for everybody and I read over some forums about the film where there was definitely some pent up aggression from all sides being vented. I guess I just don’t take it on that deep a level. Maybe I should but I don’t. I read angry reviews of the film that attack Mantan Moreland himself and call into question his dignity and self-respect. He did what he had to do at the time and you can watch the film and enjoy it for what is or you can get all angry at the injustices and inequities of life. And if you don’t know how you stand on the matter then I will post the entire film here, from the Internet Archives, and you can judge for yourself. Is the film a nightmare of ignorant racial stereotyping or simply Saturday afternoon Matinee fodder from an other time when life was not so perfect, like it is nowadays.