There are two movies running in parallel during King of the Zombies. One is a piece of straight up mystery in which heroic Dick Purcell and John Archer crash land on a strange island of the undead and do battle with a nefarious mad European doctor played by Henry Victor. The other movie involves Mantan Moreland having some goofy fun as he tries unsuccessfully to avoid becoming a zombie and to escape the aforementioned spooky island. On their own, each has its moments, but when the two films intersect – well, the movie is only big enough for one and the comic hi-jinks easily win out. It’s interesting that in a film where the black and the white characters are separated by class and by the stairs of a house, that despite (I’d imagine) the intentions of the writer the below stairs action proves to be by far the more exciting, funny and vital of the two. They are the flip sides to two very different films and two very different social outlooks and experiences.
Basically, if you take Mantan Moreland out if this picture you are left with a competent poverty row cash-in to the Universal horror cycle and nothing more. With him involved, King of the Zombies is not exactly a classic but nonetheless a fondly remembered and much revived movie (it also helps that it seems to be in the public domain). Monogram obviously saw the worth of Moreland as although he is billed third in the opening titles, interestingly his name is in a bigger typeface than his co-stars Dick Purcell and Joan Woodbury. In King of the Zombies, he steals every scene he’s in and acts everyone in the cast off the screen to such a ridiculous level that it’s not even funny. The man is and was a star performer of the highest order.
Despite his towering presence, it’s a shame that the viewers have to endure the same old tired “color” jokes. There’s about three in the opening 5 minutes, along the lines of (for example) “I thought I was a little off color to be a ghost”. I know it was 1941 but you’d hope that gag was lame even by then. Thankfully, as soon as Mantan gets to do his thing, the movie picks up greatly. When I reviewed Law of the Jungle a few months ago I made the point of defending Moreland’s big eyed scaredy-cat shtick, saying that in effect his comic reactions and double takes were no different to that of Lou Costello in a similar situation. However, it’s unfortunate that this type of character for a black actor has a particularly nasty cinematic baggage to go with it, but Moreland is such a talented comedian that I feel that he really does transcend such stereotyping. And anyway, what’s the alternative, should he be acting a little more “white”? No thank you. King of the Zombies is, if nothing else a movie that shows him to be an effective and hugely talented comic leading man. It’s pretty amazing to see a black actor effectively starring in a mainstream movie from this period, and I don’t believe for a moment that anyone who went to see the film did so due to the lure of Dick Purcell and the rest of the cast (except the zombies).
Anyway, the plots regarding a missing Admiral, a sinister doctor and some zombies are pure hokum and really only there for window dressing. What’s really fascinating is how the movie essentially starts by playing off the usual casual racism of the time and finds itself (intentionally?) being subverted from within by Moreland’s charisma and vitality. The crux of the first third of the movie is that Moreland is subservient to his two companions played by Purcell and Archer. It seems to be a relationship with a modicum of respect but not much else. Although Moreland’s role as servant to the other two is not explicitly defined, a key moment early on is when the mad doctor played by Henry Victor offers his guests a drink yet misses Moreland’s glass out when pouring. The crestfallen look on his face is a picture of disappointment that is made worse when he is told he can’t have a room to sleep in with the others as he should be in the servant’s quarters otherwise it would “set a bad example”. Heroic Dick Purcell is vaguely apologetic but basically tells him to put up with it. Of course, once he goes downstairs and discovers the zombies, Purcell and Archer accuse him of dreaming it or even worse, of being drunk. Some friends they are, now we know where they stand! This immediately sets up Moreland as the unlikely hero of the film rather than the comic sidekick. It’s almost as if the movie set out to be a horror but in rehearsals they saw how good he was and decided to play it for laughs and switch the focus of the plot.
No matter, luckily downstairs in the servant’s quarters is where all the fun happens! Mantan quickly hooks up with pretty kitchen maid Samantha, played by the delightful Marguerite Whitten who tells him of the strange voodoo rituals and of the “dead folk what run around”. Between the two of them, Moreland and Whitten really keep the picture afloat and in some alternate reality I‘m sure they went on to make dozens of movies together as they have a natural chemistry sadly lacking from the rest of the wooden cast. After wisecracking himself though the usual haunted house comic shenanigans, in which he even manages to get a laugh out of the line “the tropics sure give a man a color!” when looking in the mirror (no mean feat), Moreland eventually falls afoul of the denizens of the undead.
The highlight of the film then arrives as Mantan is hypnotized into thinking he is a zombie. The evil doctor tells him to repeat, “I am dead” and “I am a zombie” which gets the incredulous reply “I am a zombie…I am…I is??” When the hypnotism is complete and he has chanted, “I am a zombie” enough he stops, then looks at the zombies and deadpans “Move over boys, I’m one of the gang now!” Soon he’s convinced he’s a zombie and has taken over as their leader and is drilling them like an army (“Company halt! Gangway for king zom!”) He also finds that the zombies don’t eat much so ends up getting all the food to himself as Marguerite Whitten plays along suspiciously. In a funny exchange he says to her “Don’t you bother me woman, can’t you see I’m a has been?” When she tells him that zombies can’t talk he snaps back “Can I help it if I’m loquacious?” He’s then he’s told that if he puts salt on his food that he’ll dry up and die again so replies “This bein’ a zombie sure is a drawback!” before taking some salt and finally snapping out of the spell with a scream of “How do I look? How do I look?” He runs to a mirror and laughs with relief when he realizes he’s not a zombie, then with split second timing remembers to be scared again and runs for his life! Moreland’s turn as the hypnotized zombie and his interplay with Whitten are easily the best parts of the film and come across as so fresh, spontaneous and natural that the rest of the cast and the movie as a whole don’t really stand a chance in comparison.
That’s not to say that the rest of the (white) cast are uniformly bad. Henry Victor is suitable creepy as the mad doctor in a role purportedly intended for Bela Lugosi. He really makes the most out of lines like “She lives, yet walks in the land of those...beyond!" Sadly others like Dick Purcell and John Archer just stand around and say their lines. However, it’s the African American members of the cast that really shine. Aside from the aforementioned Marguerite Whitten, Leigh Whipper really impresses as the incredibly creepy and definitely psychopathic butler and there is a nice cameo for Laurence Criner as an educated doctor. And some of the extras definitely give the impression that they served as technical advisers for the witchcraft scenes! All this really proves to me is that there was an embarrassment of riches in terms of working black actors in Hollywood in the 40s and that I really need to investigate some Harlem cinema.
In the end Mantan was right about the zombies but his stupid friends are still stupid. They thought they had an adventure of their own and were probably blissfully unaware of the fun he and his friends had below the stairs. I understand fully that Mantan Moreland and other actors in his position were just doing their best to get work within the Hollywood system but when I see the way he so effortlessly commands the screen when given the opportunity it’s obvious that he was a man out of time. If he were around in these more enlightened times, he would be a massive star, no doubt about it. Someone with the gifts for comic timing, reaction and delivery just wouldn’t have gone to waste. However, I look forward to the next movie I can find where Mantan Moreland gets sufficient screen time (any suggestions out there?) because I can’t think of a more dynamic talent in 40’s screen comedy.
As for King of the Zombies, it’s a superior Monogram picture despite not exactly being a comedy or horror classic, but it is strangely subversive. When it comes down to it, by the end of the movie the status quo is completely reversed and the fool becomes the hero. The aloof European doctor which the lead characters are initially so in thrall of is shown to be a (thinly disguised) Nazi who is toppled not by the square jawed heroics of Dick Purcell but by the permanently scared bumbling of his ‘servant’ Mantan Moreland. Most importantly the conventions of the horror movie are turned on the their head by Moreland, who makes the viewer realize just how contrived and ridiculous the whole set up is by his barrage of Woody Allen-esque one-liners. At the end he emerges once again as the only real person in the cast and the only character in which we can find an emotional connection. He may be scared of everything he sees but he’s the most human character in the movie, and that’s including zombie and non-zombie alike. He sums up the situation perfectly with the last line of the movie, “If there’s one thing I wouldn’t want to be twice, zombies is both of them!”