Dollar Deals: King of the Zombies (1941)

Sometimes a movie in and of itself is not very good, but the characters or actors in it elevate the material. The skill of some actors to work beyond the lines they are given is often key to a film. This is the way I have often heard people speak of actors like Brando or Pacino. However I believe that lesser known character actors are usually the ones who really breathe life into the little unrewarding and often demeaning roles they are given. This film surely has a great example of one of those actors, and his performance alone is worth well more than the dollar I spent on this DVD, but I don't want to get to into that just yet because first I must tell you about the...

King of the Zombies (1941) starring Dick Purcell, Henry Victor, Mantan Moreland, Joan Woodbury, and John Arthur. Directed by Jean Yarbrough.

Bill Summers (Arthur) Jack McCarthy (Purcell), and Jack's valet Jeff (Moreland) are on a mission to locate a missing Navy Admiral when their plane crashes on a mysterious island. With no way to escape they seek refuge in the home of Austrian doctor Miklos Sangre (Victor). Jeff keeps having strange occurrences around the house including a run in with zombie slaves, but his employer dismisses Jeff as being hopelessly paranoid.

Deep in the night, after a spectral visitor convinces them that Jeff is telling the truth, the two men explore the house and Bill gets attacked by a zombie. The next day they go back to the wreckage of the plane to salvage the radio, but find it has been stolen in the night. With no way off the island, they are at the mercy of the doctor who seems to be using voodoo and hypnosis to aid an enemy of the United States.

Film Facts

--The role of Miklos Sangre was first offered to Bela Lugosi. When he proved to be unavailable, their second choice was Peter Lorre. After that fell through it was eventually given to Henry Victor who had portrayed the strongman in Tod Browning's Freaks.

--Produced before the start of WW II, it never the less hinted to the foreign power that the mad doctor was working for to be Germany.

The Bug Speaks
This movie in and of itself is a fairly average affair. In fact the same year it was produced gave birth to classics like Citizen Kane and The Wolf Man. So King of the Zombies was in no danger of winning any accolades (that is except the music which was Oscar nominated.) The plot is thin but fun, and it's always nice to kick back with a good old fashioned voodoo zombie flick. It was kind of funny when the evil doctor admonished the men that "Zombies do not eat meat." Ahh, how times have changed.

How times have changed indeed. That is what I really want to talk about tonight. While the performances in the movie are very textbook the actor that truly rises above the pedestrian material is Mantan Moreland. While his role is seeped in stereotype and shades of the old Stepin Fetchit type routine, he manages to make his character both the only person with any sense and the only relatable character.

Mantan had been performing in films for years by the time he made this one. He starred in many of the Charlie Chan movies (themselves a bastion on stereotypes) as Chan's chauffeur. He would go on to appear in movie and TV work until 1973 and for genre audiences he might be most recognizable from his bit part in 1958's Spider Baby. He was a comic genius who's prime era of work was marred by the institutionalized racism that was inherent in his parts. (For anyone with doubts about his comic prowess let me say that none other than Moe Howard considered him for inclusion in the Stooges after the departure of Shemp.)

In King of the Zombies, Mantan truly becomes the main character whether that was
intended to be the case of not. He delivers his lines with great aplomb and timing. My favorite include when Mantan hears far off voodoo drums one one of his companions asks "What is that?" to which Mantan replies "I dunno, but it wasn't Gene Krupa." and "If there's one thing I don't want to be twice, zombies is both of them." Naturally to a politically correct modern ear, these lines seem callus when delivered in the exaggerated tone popularized by actors like Moreland and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.

While we look down upon these roles now, they were roles that actors like Moreland pioneered before black audiences and portrayed in films featuring all black casts, and they don't seem so far removed from performances like Chis Tucker in Rush Hour or Richard Pryor in movies like The Toy.

Mantan was an actor taking the parts he could get and making the most of them, and in this film he really achieved that. The era it came from was full of injustices and shameful acts, but here was a performer who did not stoop to get a role. Instead he got the role and brought the whole film up to his level. So while I'm not going to rate this movie unbelievably high because it's really not that good a film (though pretty entertaining and at 67 minutes a perfect running time), I do recommend it to anyone who wants to see an unsung genius work the screen. This film is well worth a buck if you can find it, and if not it is available on the Internet Archive here for free download.
The Bug Rating

No trailer, but here's a clip featuring Mantan Morland and his first encounter with zombies.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with you about Moreland being the break-out leading roll in this film. He is definitely the reason that this title entertains me at all.


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