Sunday, December 16, 2007


It's a double menace of zombies and Nazis in KING OF THE ZOMBIES, an enjoyable (if outdated) 1941 cheapie from Jean Yarbrough, who also directed my personal Poverty Row favorite THE DEVIL BAT. And while I'd recommend giving this one a watch, I would also suggest you not invite your politically-correct friends over.

The story mines the same OLD DARK HOUSE vein, as a pair of crash-landed pilots (Dick Purcell and John Archer) and their manservant (Mantan Moreland) find themselves stranded in the island home of an ex-patriate German scientist (Henry Victor, perhaps best known as the strongman from FREAKS) who uses zombies as workers on his estate. Of course, the zombies are part of Victor's complicated (and very impractical) scheme to use voodoo and hypnotism to steal secret information from Allied forces.

The pace is brisk, and what the film lacks in tension it makes up for in atmopshere and (albeit muted) mystery. But the film hasn't aged well, particularly in its portrayal of its African-American characters, all of whom are afflicted with the same stereotypes of the minstrel-show era. Moreland takes the brunt of these in a Steppin Fetchit-type role with bug-eyed expressions and jokes that most would find questionable today (i.e., after learning he wasn't killed in the opening plane crash he checks his hand and observes, "I thought I was a little off-color to be a ghost!"), yet his performance is so good-natured and likeable it's hard to be truly offended. In fact, most of the material that would be found objectionable now is Victor's treatment of his dark-skinned servants, such as in the drawn-out scene in which he opposes Moreland sleeping in the same room as Purcell and Asher; take a look at some of the other portrayals of blacks in this period--like Sleep 'N Eat from THE MONSTER WALKS, who's shown to be uneducated and lazy--and the cast of KING gets off fairly easy (I also found it rather ironic that, despite their treatment in the story, the African-American actors are the most talented of the cast). And to be fair, Purcell's Irish protagonist gets his share of cliches as well.

Still, despite it's decidedly un-p.c. tone, KING OF THE ZOMBIES delivers enough humor and low-budget thrills to invest an hour of your time. And though it may not be held in the same esteem as, say, WHITE ZOMBIE, I still find myself putting this one on a couple of times a year.

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