Thursday, June 24, 2010

King of the Zombies (1941) - Undead Race Relations

In 1968, George Romero changed the zombie film forever. In Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, the zombie became viral, a disease that spread like wildfire throughout the population, an onrushing tide of shambling flesh-eaters from which there was seemingly, ultimately, no escape. He also is hailed for, whether intentionally or not, turning the zombie film into something of an allegory or commentary on the times with his (admittedly bold) choice of Duane Jones as the lead in his film.

Prior to Romero's film, however, cinematic zombies were completely different creatures. Rather than being the result of some kind of scientific or military experiment gone wrong (the usual explanation for their creation in more recent films, only hinted at in Night, but made more explicit in films such as 28 Days Later), they were usually tied in with voodoo rites, some type of mind-altering drug, or even mere hypnotism. Nor were these zombies generally the type to rip apart bodies and eat their flesh or to spread their infection through a bite. Instead, usually there were only a few of them and they were used as slaves for some nefarious purpose.

These are the type of zombie that we find in today's flick, King of the Zombies.

Set just prior to America's entry into World War II, the movie opens on the cockpit of a small plane piloted by James "Mac" McCarthy. Along with him are Bill Summers and his manservant Jefferson "Jeff" Jackson. The movie seems purposefully vague as to exactly who Summers is or why the trio are flying over the Caribbean islands, but the suggestion is made later in the film that they might be secretly working for the government and searching for the missing Admiral Wainwright. Nonetheless, they are caught in a storm, their plane is damaged, and, after overhearing some German-language radio transmissions, they crash on a remote island. Taken in by a mysterious doctor who claims to be an Austrian exile (again, the film seems purposeful in not actually ever identifying the villains as Nazi's though it's pretty well implied) the trio soon find themselves caught up in a plot to use voodoo rites to extract information from the captured admiral.

So, where, in all of this, do the zombies figure in? Well, honestly, kiddies, that's a good question. The evil doctor already seems to have servants willing to do his bidding. They don't seem to be particularly necessary for the voodoo ritual. Perhaps they are simply there as guards in case a stray plane happens to crash on the island. Or to do the heavy lifting. Or to provide atmosphere so that we know we're on a tropical island and to give Mantan Moreland's Jeff a reason to do his best Lou Costello impression.

Actually, that last bit is more than a touch unfair and really does not give proper credit to the role Moreland plays in this film. While there is a touch of Lou's "Hey Abbott!" reactions in Jeff's "Mr. Bill! Mr. Bill!", and lines like "I can't, my foot done took to root" when told to "Come on" do in a way echo Costello's reactions in films such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, when one truly looks at it, Moreland's performance is incredibly restrained in comparison to Costello's completely over-the-top performances. Also, where Lou was never able to really rise above the role of the buffoon, Moreland, while playing the role of the servant proves himself to be as quick-witted and observant (if not more so) than the white men he is with.

In truth, though Dick Purcell may get top billing, this is definitely Moreland's film, and in that way it is just as revolutionary for its time as Romero's take was for his. While Jeff may be easily frightened and overly superstitious, and while he may, in his role as Summer's servant have to be careful of his place, it is obvious through Moreland's performance that there is much more going on with him. It's also obvious that this was a choice of the filmmakers as much as Moreland. For instance, there is a scene early in the film, just after the trio have met Dr. Sangre, where the evil Austrian says "Gentlemen, shall we have a drink?"  He then proceeds to pour three glasses of brandy. When Jeff reaches out for the third glass, the doctor takes it for himself with a reproving look. Though he accepts the snub, it's obvious from the look that he passes back to the doctor that his submissive attitude is not going to last for too long. And there are other occasions sprinkled throughout the film where it is made obvious that the a part of the doctor's evil nature is his callous attitude towards those under him, whereas Mac and Bill, while they may not treat Jeff as an equal, certainly show a respect for him as a person.

The trailer for the film is below, but before we take a look at it, I must say that it seems completely wrong-headed. Trying to sell this film as a straight horror flick, it not only misleads its potential audience, it also, while giving Moreland second billing, emphasizes the screeching Costello-like aspect of his role. It's almost as though the trailer was made for a white audience while the film itself was made for a black one, and one can't help but wonder if there's not perhaps a different trailer floating around that would have been made for more urban theaters. Nonetheless, here it is:

And the skinny:
Title: King of the Zombies
Release Date: 1941
Running Time: 67min
Black and White
Starring: Dick Purcell, Mantan Moreland
Directed by: Jean Yarbrough
Produced by: Lindsley Parsons
Distributed by: Monogram Pictures Corporation

King of the Zombies is available to watch or download for free here.
It's also available for purchase on DVD from Amazon:King of the Zombies.
Finally, Netflix also has the DVD available for rent: King of the Zombies / Revolt of the Zombies: Double Feature.

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian


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