For all of Halloween-themed October, ComicsVerse is creating magic. By magic, we mean analyses of Halloween films, shows, music, and anything else we can find. If you want to keep posted on the newest and greatest content in this particular series, you can check it out here. Stay tuned for more ComicsVerse series coming your way, Spoopy Ghostoween and beyond! Now, let’s talk about KING OF THE ZOMBIES!


Welcome, children of the night. October has arrived and brought with it pumpkin spice, candy, and monsters. We eat candy, decorate our houses with spiders, and turn off the lights for horror of all kinds (I watch THE EXORCIST and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD every year myself). True scares can be hard to come by; monsters like Dracula and Freddy Krueger have been around for decades and lost some of their potency.

So for the next month, I will be looking for new scares in the lesser known bits of horror media. The horror we see in the mainstream often follows Hollywood formulas, which can ruin a film before it begins. Horror that flies under the radar gets more freedom to experiment, often with more effective results. We begin our examination with a horror-comedy from the early days of the genre: 1941’s KING OF THE ZOMBIES.

KING OF THE ZOMBIES: The Plot

A U.S. transport plane crashes onto a Caribbean island during wartime. The pilot, “Mac” McCarthy leads his crew (Bill Summers and McCarthy’s valet Jeffery Jackson) to shelter — the home of Dr. Miklos Sangre, an Austrian refugee who took refuge on the island. Jackson explores and finds that Sangre has learned voodoo and has created a small army of zombies. The trio must stop Sangre and free the U.S. Admiral he has captured and is interrogating for war information.

KING OF THE ZOMBIES
You have to admit, it’s an original method of interrogation,

Early Horror

KING OF THE ZOMBIES emerged as one of the era’s many “B” movies. The Bob Hope horror-comedy THE GHOST BREAKERS serves as inspiration, but KING places focus on zombies. The film depicts zombies closer to their role in voodoo — they are mute, silent creatures that act on command, with no independent thought or brain eating. Fans of THE WALKING DEAD and George Romero may be disappointed, but this portrayal was among Hollywood’s earliest attempt at using zombies. It’s unlikely zombies would exist in today’s film and TV without these early efforts.

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The film itself tells a fairly standard story of the times. The plot echoes GHOST BREAKERS, and the characters are relatively simplistic. McCarthy acts quite blandly, as does the leading lady, Barbara Winslow. The performances fill the requirements of the “B” movies of the time, though. It fails to reach the high performances of films like DRACULA or FRANKENSTEIN, but that isn’t entirely its fault. The filmmakers intended to have Bela Lugosi play Sangre, but Lugosi was unable to film. His on-screen presence could have added a new layer to the film, but Henry Victor is still capable.

KING OF THE ZOMBIES
He’s the one on the right

The film works in creating atmosphere and not taking itself too seriously. The house works as a creepy backdrop, and the story is handled seriously, which is part of the fun of the film. “B” movies function best when you ignore the problems and lose yourself in the world they create. KING OF THE ZOMBIES creates a world where that is easy to do, and viewers can enjoy it with ease. The imperfections become part of the fun.

Product of the Times

One less fun but unavoidable imperfection of the film is its portrayal of African-Americans. Besides silent zombies, there are four prominent roles and all are servants — Jackson, the maid Samantha, the butler Momba, and the cook/voodoo priestess Tahama. Momba functions as a creepy adversary, but Samantha and Tahama function as stereotypes (sassy black maid and voodoo lady, respectively). While not overly offensive, it can be uncomfortable to watch in modern times. That may be part of the reason the film is not held in higher regard.

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However, the film shows a more positive role in Jackson. He acts as a servant, but more like a butler. The film’s villain is the only one who openly disrespects him, while his associates value him. Jackson comes across as cowardly, but his instincts about the house prove correct, and despite his fear, he almost always joins up with the heroes when needed.  Jackson’s quick wit also delivers much of the humor of the film.

This is no surprise, as Jackson is played by Mantan Moreland, a veteran comic actor of the time. Moreland grew famous for his supporting roles in vaudeville and film and was nearly selected to replace Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges. He brings all his skill to the role of Jackson and is clearly the best part of the film. Without his commitment, it’s unlikely the film would be as memorable.

Final Thoughts on KING OF THE ZOMBIES

KING OF THE ZOMBIES stands as a unique if uneven piece. It is a product of its time and has some uncomfortable moments as a result. The scares are competent but not hugely frightening. There is good in it, though, as it shows Hollywood’s early efforts to utilize zombies.

It also demonstrates the difficulties African-Americans had in early film roles, and how we should do better today. It’s a great testament to Mantan Moreland, and how his charm and comedic talent elevated the film. KING OF THE ZOMBIES isn’t ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, but fans of that mix of ’40s horror and comedy will enjoy it.

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