King of the Zombies is a 1941 “horror comedy film produced by Monogram Pictures.” This low budget little film is set shortly before the United States enters World War II and features three travelers, a pilot, an American special agent, and the agent’s valet, who crash land on a “spooky island” and “find an evil doctor working with foreign spies and in control of zombies.” But these zombies are a far cry from modern day zombies. Instead of running about chomping on people like the zombies in The Walking Dead, the zombies in King of the Zombies are the old fashioned, slow moving, slave-to-the-evil-doctor kind. And forget the blood and gore popular in zombie shows nowadays. King of the Zombies features one little white bandage on a boo-boo on a forehead of one of our heroes. There certainly is no blood and gore involved in the eating habits of our 1941 zombies. Zombie fans will never believe that dinner scene until they see it.
In King of the Zombies, our heroes, Mac the pilot, Bill the agent, and Jeff the valet, are looking for a missing United States Admiral. They hear a mysterious German transmission just before their plane crash lands on an island. Our heroes quickly find the gloomy home of Dr. Sangre, who speaks German and claims to be an Austrian refugee. But the evil doctor has actually kidnapped the missing Admiral and is trying to force the Admiral to reveal his knowledge of secret military plans. King of the Zombies never quite comes out and says that Nazi spies are behind all the nefarious doings. Apparently, Monogram Pictures was playing it safe because the United States was not yet at war with Germany and earlier films that were too overtly anti-Nazi were kept out of some big city markets when they were unable to pass local pro-Germany censorship boards.
The role of the evil Doctor Miklos Sangre was originally intended for Bela Lugosi then the role was offered to Peter Lorre but the deal fell through. Monogram Pictures ended up signing veteran character actor Henry Victor just before filming began. Victor manages to look suitably villainous by candlelight and several times shows hints of a malicious nature but overall is pretty wimpy compared to some of the vicious characters, like The Walking Dead’s the Governor, that rule modern day zombie flicks.
The rest of the cast includes Dick Purcell as gutsy pilot “Mac” McCarthy (the one with the forehead boo-boo), John Archer as the smooth agent Bill Summers, Joan Woodbury as Dr. Sangre’s utterly forgettable niece Barbara, and Patricia Stacey as Dr. Sangre’s glassy-eyed wife. All four are completely bland “B” movie characters. My two favorite characters, and the highlight of the movie in my humble opinion, are Mantan Moreland as the skittish valet, Jeff, and Marguerite Whitten as the talkative maid, Samantha.
Marguerite Whitten (1913 – 1990) was a charming, intelligent, elegant black actress who played in many grade “A” black films of the 1930s and 1940s as well as “mainstream” Hollywood films. In King of the Zombies, Marguerite is pretty much restricted to just standing around and talking in her role as a stereotyped black maid. But she brings a lot of sass and pizazz to her very limited role. Marguerite had so much more to offer than her role as Samantha the maid from Alabama allowed her. So much more than what Hollywood and American society of her times allowed her. Marguerite’s sweet voice and the smooth and confident way she moves enables Marguerite to run rings around the other two female stars while she is literally standing still.
But my absolute favorite part of King of the Zombies is Mantan Moreland. I do not remember watching King of the Zombies in particular when I was younger, but as soon as Mantan Moreland came on screen I remembered him. I remember his look and his snappy banter. Mantan Moreland (1902 – 1973) had a very interesting career as a comedian and an actor. He got his start by repeatedly running away from home as a boy to join traveling circuses. He graduated to playing vaudeville stages and the “chitlin’ circuit.” Mantan began his film career by playing small roles as servants, waiters, porters, or shoeshine men but was quickly playing featured roles and appearing in grade “A” comedy films. Mantan gained great popularity in the 1930s and 1940s by playing the scaredy-cat, superstitious servant or employee who is forever warning about possible dangers and unsuccessfully trying to avoid troubles. One of his best known roles was as Birmingham Brown, the skittish chauffer in the Charlie Chan movie series produced by Monogram Pictures. Mantan was Monogram’s in-house comic relief artist. Monogram, unlike the way other studios of the time treated their black actors and actresses, recognized and appreciated Mantan’s value. They always put his name high on the cast lists of his films. Mantan gets third billing in King of the Zombies (although he really deserved top billing).
In many ways, Mantan Moreland reminds me of Lou Costello of the Abbott and Costello comedy team. I’m a huge Abbott and Costello fan and one of my personal favorite movies is Hold That Ghost (which is, unfortunately, not in the Public Domain). I think there are a lot of similarities between King of the Zombies and Hold That Ghost in the way both films combine comedy with (admittedly slight) horror. I think there are also a lot of similarities between Costello in his movie and Mantan in his movie. Both of their characters are short, little, scaredy-cats who often quake and quiver and run away from danger and they both employ quick and snappy banter. I feel the biggest difference is that Mantan, because he was not allowed to be the star, just is not able to go full out the way Costello was. I actually would have enjoyed King of the Zombies a lot more if Mantan had been allowed to fully flex his comedic muscle (although he still does a pretty great job of out shining the white actors who got “star” billing).
There are also a lot of similarities between Mantan in King of the Zombies and Bob Hope in The Ghost Breakers (also one of my favorite movies and also, unfortunately, not in the Public Domain). The Ghost Breakers was another contemporary film to King of the Zombies and Bob Hope plays a faint hearted character very similar to both Mantan’s character and Lou Costello’s character. In fact, Mongram actually tried to capitalize on the huge popularity of The Ghost Breakers and “blatantly advised” movie exhibitors to “sell it (our movie) along the same lines as The Ghost Breakers.”
Mantan Moreland and other black stars suffered career difficulties in the 1950s when racial attitudes began to change and the civil rights movement began to take off. Mantan had been popular and his characters had been considered hilarious but, with the growing social changes, many people began to chaff under the severe limitations placed on black actors and actresses. Mantan and other former black stars were accused of negative portrayals, demeaning black life, and being hugely offensive and found themselves ostracized and ridiculed. Later in the 1950s and in the 1960s, Mantan managed a modest comeback. He was even briefly considered as a replacement Stooge in the Three Stooges after Shemp Howard died. But a stroke and continuing ill health limited his resurgence and he died of cerebral hemorrhage in 1973.
Mantan Moreland and Marguerite Whitten are excellently funny together in King of the Zombies. Some of the best scenes in the movie are not the scares and thrills (which are pretty tame for modern viewers) but the comedy and witty repartee between Mantan and Marguerite. For example:
- Samantha (Marguerite) explains what the old cook is making. “It’s a magic potion for scarin’ away the evil spirits.” Jeff asks, “Evil spirits? Good gracious o’ me! Why? There is evil spirits around here?” Samantha assures him and elbows him, “Why sure. The place is crawlin’ with ‘em. And that ain’t all.” “What? There’s more?” asks Jeff. “More? You can’t heard nothin’. Just what’ll you see the zombies.” says Samantha. “Zombies? What’s them?” Samantha starts to explain, “Dead folks…..what walks around.” Jeff is terrified, “They does? Here?”gasps Jeff. “Especially here,” says Samantha. “Why here?” asks Jeff. Samantha continues her explanation, “ ‘Cause this is where they grows the best. They’s all over this place. And all you have to do is clap your hands and they comes a-runnin’. ” She claps and two zombies enter the kitchen while Jeff yells and runs off.
- Later, Jeff has been mesmerized and zombie-fied by Dr. Sangre. Samantha see him in a lineup of zombies waiting to be fed (the zombies actually sit and eat at a table). Samantha asks, “What you doin’ in that lineup?” The supposedly zombie-fied Jeff snaps back, “Don’t bother me, woman! Can’t you see I is a has been?” “A zombie?” asks Samantha. “Nothin’ else but. And don’t ask me my name ‘cause I don’t know,” responds Jeff. “You ain’t no zombie. Zombies can’t talk,” assures Samantha. Jeff replies, “Can I help it ‘cause I’m loquacious?”
- Jeff complains about the poor quality of the zombie food, “This being a zombie sure is a drawback. Where’s the salt?” Samantha refuses, “You eats that the way it is and likes it. Zombies ain’t supposed to use salt.” But Samantha relents and gives Jeff some salt. After a few more comments she tells Jeff, “Then you ain’t no zombie. The rules says if a zombie uses salt, he dries up and gets dead again.” Samantha gives Jeff a mirror so he can see that he is not dead, “ ‘Cause when a zombie looks in a mirror he don’t see nothin’.” Jeff is sort of reassured, “That’s me alright. Well, I ain’t no zombie after all. If I ain’t no zombie and they is, what am I doing here? What am I doing here?” He yells and runs off again.
Mantan Moreland as Jeff has multiple funny lines throughout the movie. He also gets some well justified cracks in when the white men around him are less than respectful:
- When they first arrive at the mysterious mansion, Bill, Jeff’s employer, is too busy wiping his face and tells Jeff to ring the bell. Jeff snaps back, “Oh, Mr. Bill, you’re the one wants to go in there, you ring the bell.”
- Dr. Sangre gives Bill and Mac a bedroom for the night but rudely refuses to let Jeff stay with them because it would “set a bad example for the other servants.” Bill tells Jeff to go on to the servant quarters, “It’ll be alright, Jeff.” “For who?” snaps Jeff.
- Jeff is frightened by the dark, scary stairs and hallways to the servant quarters, “Shooo! If it was in me, I sure would be pale now!”
- Later, Bill wants to go off and find out where the mysterious voodoo drums are but Jeff balks, “Oh, Mr. Bill, ain’t we found enough for one day?”
Besides the comedy and the lack of any real thrills, King of the Zombies is most notable for being the only “zombie-related film to be nominated for an Academy Award in any category.” Monogram Pictures was one of a group of small, mostly low budget studios collectively referred to as “Poverty Row.” Monogram specialized in action and adventure movies with some comedy- relief (like King of the Zombies). Monogram did not normally have the budget to attract Academy Award talent but the studio kind of got a freebie Academy Award nomination. The Academy rules, in 1941, guaranteed every studio (even the “Poverty Row” studios) at least one nomination in the Musical Score category. Monogram put the score to King of the Zombies on the ballot. The beating voodoo drums and “minimalist motifs” did not win (and really, really did not deserve to win) but the nomination makes King of the Zombies stand out in a long line of zombie films.
Overall, if you are a zombie fan who is longing for more suspense and snatch-and-chomp a la The Walking Dead, you will not find it in King of the Zombies. But if you are a movie fan who enjoys old fashioned chills and thrills and delights in snappy banter (and does not mind zombies who have a habit of staring at the ceiling), then King of the Zombies is right up your alley.
King of the Zombies is only 67 minutes long and is filmed in black and white but, of course, the best thing about the movie is that it is in the Public Domain and can be watched FREE at the Internet Archive.
There are two links to King of the Zombies at the Internet Archive. Please click this link to go to the first version which appears to be a slightly darker film version.