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Saturday, June 18, 2011

King of the Zombies (1941)


This is one of those films that I reviewed on Facebook a couple of years ago- and gave it a harsher review than it deserved on first viewing.  For it's flaws, this early zombie film isn't all THAT bad.

While searching for a missing Admiral during World War II, Bill Summers, his pilot, and his valet are caught in a storm and are low on fuel.  Their only chance of survival is to follow a weak radio signal and crash land on a s small island in the Caribbean.  What they will discover there is beyond their belief as they confront, the King of the Zombies...

 Originally, Monogram Pictures tried to get Bela Lugosi to  star in this movie as Dr. Miklos Sangre (sangre is Spanish for "blood" just so you know), but he was unable.  Since they weren't able to get Peter Lorre as their second choice, the role went to Henry Victor- who signed just before filming began.  "King of the Zombies" was released just before the US entered World War II on the side of the Allies, and you get the pretty clear idea that the enemy behind the plot are the Nazis.  Some of the clues given are Dr. Sangre's Austrian origins, German being spoken, and spy references.  Even though neither German, or Nazi are mentioned outright, the press kit for the film does list Dr. Sangre as a "secret agent for a European government."

When advertizing the film, exhibitors were told to compare it to Paramount's "The Ghost Breakers" (1940)- a runaway Bob Hope comedy/horror from the previous year.

I think part of the reason I was hard on this comedy/horror when I reviewed it on Facebook was because of its unfortunately racial stereotyping of the black valet: easily frightened, less than intellegent, and jive talking.  The irony is the fact that while they're using a negative racial stereotype themselves, they highlight the villain's own bigotry to make him more distasteful to the audience.  I found the dichotomy of the racism to be a little distasteful as a whole when I first viewed it.

On second viewing however, I noticed something I hadn't the first time: it was the racially stereotyped black valet, and the racially stereotyped black kitchen maid that got all the really good lines.  One classic line occurs when Mantan Moreland (as Jeff, the valet) explains to the white characters what a zombie is: "A fugitive from the undertakers".  Another example is during the scene when Jeff is hitting on Samantha, the black maid (played wonderfully by the lovely Marguerite Whitten), and she reveals that she sees her ex once in awhile... but only because he's a zombie.

Compared to Moreland and Whitten, the main white characters are dull, boring and lack depth.  Maybe this time, the racial stereotyping backfired.

Once I got over the racially oriented irony, I actually enjoyed this film more- especially the humour.  Mantan Moreland was fantastic as Jefferson "Jeff" Jackson.  Even though his character was a stereotype, he brought humour, wit, and charm to the role.  Unlike William Best's role in "The Monster Walks" (1932), Moreland's character was a more integral part of the storyline, and much more interesting than those played by the white actors.  Marguerite Whitten as Samantha was also a joy to watch, despite the racial stereotype... and I won't lie- she was nice to look at too.  Her character was confident, witty, and charming.  The teaming of her and Mantan was perfect.  The two played off each other wonderfully, and gave me several chuckles throughout the film.

I also enjoyed the role of the black butler, Momba- played by Leigh Whipper.  He didn't have a lot of screen time, but he did bring a couple of smiles to my face with his characters apparently ability to just appear in a room after having just been left in another.  The cook and voodoo high priestess- played by Madame Sul-Te Wan was also a small, but still enjoyable character too.

Now, if I could only feel so positive about the characters played by the white actors.  I found Dick Purcell's James "Mac" McCarthy, and John Archer's Bill Summers to be rather dull, boring, lackluster, and essentially blah- especially Archer.  At least Purcell tried to bring some life and energy to his role as the pilot, "Mac".  I know they were supposed to be the straight men to Moreland's comedic Jeff, but a straight man tend to be funny because of his reactions to the comic.  In this case, I found them rather lacking in humour.  I just couldn't get interested in their characters.

The same can be said about Barbara Winslow (played by Joan Woodbury).  She was beautiful, yes... but her character lacked depth, and really didn't seem to serve much purpose- other than to be the damsel in distress.

Henry Victor did bring some decent acting to his role as Dr. Miklos Sangre though.  He gave his character just the right amount of charm, arrogance, mystery and menace that I was interested in what he was up to.

Finally, we come to the acting skills of the zombies.  As with the 1932 classic, "White Zombie", this film also uses voodoo zombies... and the same style of "acting" for them:  stiff back, wide open eyes, staring straight forward.  I would've peferred some shambling, but I have to admit that this style of zombie attitude made the scene of them marching into the kitchen in ranks with Jeff in the lead a bit more humourous.

I was impressed with the music in this movie, it was subtle, but good.  "King of the Zombies" was actually nominated for the Best Music Score of a Dramatic Picture Academy Award when it was released.  I'd love to find the list of the song titles, and see if I could find them for download.

As with many film from this era, the camera work was simple- but still interesting and very effective in telling the story.  I was quite pleased with the way shadows were used to dress up the background of some of the more spartan sets.  The jungle scenes especially were well shot, and looked great.

In the finaly analysis, while the racial stereotype played by the black actors may turn some people off, once you realize that those actors are the BEST part of the movie, you come to simply enjoy their performance.  As great as they are, however, this film won't be able to rise above being placed in "The Bad"

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