‘King of the Zombies‘ is an American horror-comedy that was directed by Jean Yarbrough, and was produced by Monogram Pictures.
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.
Broadly speaking zombie movies can be divided into two eras; pre and post George Romero. The rioting, lumbering flesh-eating variety with which we’re more familiar today is at odds with the silent, obedient, Voodoo inspired zombies of earlier years.
King of the Zombies (1941) is decidedly in the early camp, sharing DNA and major plot points with films like White Zombie, Voodoo Man and I Walked with a Zombie, but lacking a star performer like Bela Lugosi or great director like Jacques Tourneur.
The plot begins simply and familiarly enough as James McCarthy (Dick Purcell), his pilot Bill (John Archer) and manservant Jeff (Mantan Moreland) crash on a deserted island having heard a strange radio broadcast.
They find that the island is run by the suspiciously accented Doctor Sangre (Henry Victor). No surprises so far as most desert islands in B Movies of the 1930s and 40s are run by accented doctors of some sort who have cowed the natives and have inhuman plans, tampering with the laws of nature. Sangre is no exception, as Jeff soon discovers when he finds the servants quarters inhabited by zombies! At first James and Bill will not believe Jeff but then more sinister events occur, they meet Sangre’s hypnotised wife and obviously frightened niece, and discover that their plane’s radio has been sabotaged. Now they have to give more credence to Jeff’s stories. They begin to search for the radio signal which Sangre swears does not exist.
About halfway through the film reveals the twist that, given the date of the film, most of the people in the audience were probably expecting; Sangre is German! Once the US entered the Second World War, Hollywood joined the fight and began to retool films from every genre, from Western to cartoon and from romance to horror, to service the war effort (with varying degrees of subtlety). It turns out that Sangre is a Nazi agent who has captured a US admiral and is using Voodoo magic to make the man give up military secrets. And it looks like Sangre might succeed as he turns both Jeff and Bill into zombies. Jeff however, for reasons that the film declines to make clear, remains unaffected. James and Jeff storm Sangre’s Voodoo ritual, saving the day, the admiral and Bill, while Sangre burns in his own fire pit.
Two things set King of the Zombies apart from those similar films mentioned earlier. The first is a deliberate emphasis on comedy over horror. Director Jean Yarbrough would go on to direct 1967’s Hillbillys in a Haunted House, and although this later film does away with horror altogether it still features some striking similarities to King of the Zombies; foreign agents, mysterious signals and wacky comedy. The comedy falls to Jeff and it is here that things become a bit uncomfortable. The second thing that sets King of the Zombies apart is that, while films of this era unavoidably feature some outdated attitudes, King of the Zombies is the one that comes across as pretty racist. I should stress; it could be worse, if you read my summary of the film above Jeff sounds like the hero, he discovers the truth when no one will believe him and he saves the day. But it’s all accidental and he achieves these things mostly whilst running away. Jeff is a figure of fun, a jittery stereotype who mistakes a man struggling out of a parachute for a ghost. To modern eyes (and probably quite a few eyes at the time), it makes for uncomfortable viewing. The irony is that Mantan Moreland was a very successful African American comedy actor on stage and screen right up until attitudes began to change, at which point the film work dried up.
If you can put the race thing to one side, King of the Zombies has aged better than some of its contemporaries. So many horror B movies now look funny just because they have lost the power to scare. But because it set out to be funny in the first place, King of the Zombies still succeeds on its own terms.
‘King of the Zombies‘ enjoyed a loose sequel, more of a remake actually, in 1943 when Monogram Picture made ‘Revenge of the Zombies‘ – which hinges around a similar plot involving Nazi’s, and also features Mantan Moreland.
Watch ‘King of the Zombies’ below:
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Written by: Robin Bailes