Title: King of the Zombies (1941)
Director: Jean Yarbrough
Cast: Henry Victor, Mantan Morland, Dick Purcell, Joan Woddbury
It’s interesting to see how the concept of a zombie has evolved through time. I mean, right now, you ask anybody what a zombie is and they’ll describe a walking corpse who feeds on human flesh or brains. They’ll say “braaaains” and do their best imitation of a walking bag of pus. But zombies weren’t always this way and we have directors George Romero and Dan O’Bannon to thank for re-defining what a zombie is. It’s thanks to their films that today’s idea of a zombie is the way it is. From Night of the Living Dead (1968) onward, zombies were seen as flesh eaters. From Return of the Living Dead (1985) onward, zombies cried out for brains and ran! These two films redefined the concept of what a zombie is and that vision has stuck in popular culture to this very day. But once upon a time, zombies were seen as something vastly different.
In King of the Zombies we meet this trio of friends who are on a plane on their way to the Bahamas when a storm knocks them off course and sends them to a mysterious island somewhere between “Puerto Rico and Cuba”, they never mention it, but I’m guessing they are talking about Haiti, cause you know, that’s where voodoo and zombies were always from in these old movies. Once down on the island, they meet a man by the name of Dr. Miklos Sangre, a rich landowner who welcomes the three men into his home. Like Count Dracula, Dr. Miklos seems like a friendly host, offering the three men refuge for the next two weeks, while the next boat that can take them off the island arrives, but there’s something slightly off about the mysterious host. There’s talk of evil spirits and zombies roaming the island amongst the slave population and how is Dr. Miklos related to the undead?
King of the Zombies is a film that plays out a lot like a remake of White Zombie (1931), the first true zombie movie ever made. A lot of the situations are similar, we get strangers stranded on a zombie filled island, an apparently friendly host with an ulterior motive, and we get a zombie master controlling the zombies for his own purposes, using them as slaves. The zombie master or ‘King of the Zombies’ as the title implies uses voodoo to control the undead. We get a woman, dressed in white walking around zombified. Hell, even the actor playing Dr. Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor) was channeling Bela Lugosi’s Hungarian accent. That probably has a lot to do with the fact that the producers of this film wanted Lugosi for the role but were unable to get him. They even wanted Peter Lorre at one point; the role ultimately went to actor Henry Victor, who by the way has an imposing figure, he was a good choice to replace Lugosi, though of course, Lugosi would have been better. So what we got here my friends is a film extremely influenced by White Zombie, but with a completely different tone. While White Zombie was a straight forward horror film, King of the Zombies is a horror-comedy; some consider it one of the best. By today’s standards it isn’t har-har slap on the knee funny, but it does have that innocent kind of comedy found in films of this time; I’d say something a kin to Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948).
The comedy of the film comes in the form of a character called Jefferson ‘Jeff’ Jackson, a black comedian of his time. I have to admit, he does offer up some of the funniest lines in the film. He plays a man servant, a popular idea at the time. This film was made during those days when black people were seen as servants to the white; by the way this is an idea that if you ask me, hasn’t completely disappeared from the face of the earth, even in this modern day and age. This is what I found most interesting about this movie, same as Night of the Living Dead, King of the Zombies (a film that appears to be a silly horror comedy) has a lot to say about the issue of racism. The King of the Zombies is a white man who controls black people to do his bidding, once under his hypnotic control; they become brainless zombies who don’t think for themselves, they instead follow orders blindly. I just thought it was a bold statement that all the zombies in this film are black people! And he who leads them is not only an evil white man who sees the blacks as inferior to him, but he is also a Nazi, trying to acquire military secrets from the Americans! So yeah, this film does have some meat to it, I liked that about it. On the surface it might seem like an ultra silly film, but deep inside, it has some ‘cojones’. Some see King of the Zombies as a racist film and while I wont deny that the film does display some terribly cliched stereotypes of blacks; I saw the film as a comment on racism; in the end it criticizes racism, it doesnt condone it.
I’ve been enjoying watching zombie films from all countries and eras, with King of the Zombies I wanted to take a dip into that zombie era where zombies where something entirely different. It is interesting to hear characters in this film defining what a zombie is. For example, at one moment in the film we see how alien the idea of zombies was when a character asks what a zombie is and they go into how zombies are the undead, yet they walk. At one point someone complains that a zombie was trying to eat him and someone replies “zombies don’t eat human flesh!” And there my friends is where I noticed just how much the concept of a zombie has changed with time. The film also goes on at one point about zombies not being able to talk and zombies not standing salt. They actually go on about how if zombies eat salt they shrivel up and die all over again, which got to thinking of why they didn’t just use salt to kill all the zombies in the film, but whatever. That’s just me saying. Bottom line with this movie is, if you want to see a film that’s lighthearted yet old school spooky, and to be honest a bit on the monotonous side, King of the Zombies is the way to go. Just don’t expect to see walking corpses or flesh eating, cause this are zombies from an entirely different era, a time when zombies did nothing but walk around mindlessly waiting to do as they are told.
Rating 2 out of 5