King of the Zombies (1941) *
Oh, shit. I finally get my hands on an honest-to-god Monogram movie, and it turns out also to be a goddamned Mantan Moreland flick. I might have known something like that would happen. Anyway, between the title, the studio, and the fact of Moreland’s involvement, you’ve probably got some kind of idea what to expect. What we’ve got here is an agonizingly unfunny, racist horror comedy with no redeeming features beyond its extreme brevity (we’re talking 67 minutes here) and the rare witty one-liner.
As we enter the stream of the plot, G-man Bill Summers (John Archer, from The Bowery at Midnight and Destination Moon) and his valet, Jefferson Jackson (Moreland, who would confront the undead again in Revenge of the Zombies two years later), are being flown to the Bahamas by a military pilot named James McCarthy (Dick Purcell, of Phantom Killer and The Mystery of the 13th Guest). Or at any rate, that’s where they think they’re headed. In point of fact, their plane is way the hell off course thanks to some seriously hairy weather over the ocean. Moreover, the weather is also playing havoc with the plane’s radio, on which McCarthy is having no luck at all raising any kind of air-traffic control. And the plane is almost out of fuel. Then, without warning, McCarthy intercepts a surprisingly strong German-language transmission which, considering how hard a time any radio signal would have getting through the storm, must be coming from someplace more or less directly below the plane. Dipping down beneath the clouds reveals a smallish island, with what appears to be a clearing large enough to land an aircraft in smack in the middle of its otherwise dense forest. McCarthy figures it beats ditching in the water, and decides to bring the machine down.
This is, of course, not that great an idea. The clearing turns out to be a graveyard, and the plane is quite wrecked by the time it finally comes to a stop. (There’s a very good reason why crypts and tombstones aren’t approved for runway use by the FAA, you know.) But surprisingly enough (well, it would be surprising in the real world...), none of the three passengers is seriously hurt, even after being thrown from the cockpit. The three men come to after an indecently brief period of unconsciousness, and then go wandering off through the jungle, ill-advisedly following the sound of those same damn voodoo drums you hear in every movie about zombies that’s set in the third world. This eventually leads them to the mansion of Dr. Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor, from Freaks and the 1916 version of She). Sangre, an Austrian refugee of Hitler’s anschluss (which doesn’t quite explain his Greek first name and Spanish last name— which, for the benefit of those not linguistically inclined, just happens to mean “blood”), lives on the island with his wife, Alyce (Patricia Stacey), and her niece, Barbara Winslow (Joan Woodbury, whom we last encountered in The Time Travelers). He’s also got a basement full of black servants— including a menacingly taciturn butler named Momba (Leigh Whipper) and a sassy cook/maid called Samantha (Marguerite Whitten)— whose main function in the movie will be to give Jeff somebody to clown around with.
And as Jeff discovers after he is ignominiously banished by Sangre to the basement servants’ quarters, the doctor also has a pack of zombies hanging around his estate. The zombies first appear while Jeff is making rather inept passes at Samantha— immediately, as a matter of fact, after the maid explains to her “guest” just what a zombie is. Let the ostensibly funny screaming and running about commence...
The sad part is, that’s really most of the movie right there: ostensibly funny screaming and running about. Oh, sure— there are a pair of quasi-romantic subplots involving Jeff and Samantha on the one hand, and Bill and Barbara on the other. There’s also something about Alyce Sangre being partially zombified and Barbara attempting to use the hypnotic techniques she has learned from the surreptitious study of her uncle’s books to cure her. And then there’s some foolishness about a missing American admiral (Guy Usher, from The Devil Bat and the original 1939 Buck Rogers) and the efforts of Sangre— really a Nazi spy, of course— to pry out of him the details of the U.S. fortifications in the Panama Canal Zone using a combination of hypnotism and voodoo magic. But really, King of the Zombies is about Jeff Jackson running around and screaming in an ostensibly funny manner. Come to think of it, Jeff’s role is a lot like that played by Shaggy some 30 years later in “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?”— with the important distinction that we are invited to believe that Jeff’s cowardice somehow follows naturally and inevitably from him being black. Above and beyond all else, it’s this that makes watching King of the Zombies such an uncomfortable experience. Yeah, I know— it was a different era back then, and if a black actor wanted a career in Hollywood outside the peculiar ghetto of the “race pictures,” he basically had little choice but to milk the Shiftless/Cowardly/Ignorant/Whatever Negro shtick. I understand that. But I still can’t watch this movie without constantly saying to myself, “Jesus Christ, Moreland! Have you no shame? Have you no dignity? Have you no self-respect?”