History of the Zombie Genre (Part 2: King of the Zombies)

I’m back like a bad sequel and, speaking of which, I was showcasing White Zombie during our last discussion. Well, the 1930’s rolled on and soon another film in the Zombie genre called Revolt of the Zombies came about. It was a sequel, but it didn’t really live up to White Zombie which, in my opinion, wasn’t that great to begin with. Strangely enough, it wasn’t allowed to be promoted as a sequel at all due to legal issues. So really on top of being a less then stellar film, it was also not really allowed to be promoted. It’s no wonder that it fell into the cracks of obscurity. Feel free to check it out on your own if you’re curious, though, because the film is public domain and can be found just about anywhere.

This time, though, I want to jump past the 1930’s and tackle the 1940’s. The genre didn’t change much really; zombie movies were still subject of mysticism and or black magic. For one reason or another, the concept was always an isolated island of natives with “civilized” white people being thrust into a world of backwater superstition.
I think it might have something to do with audiences at the time as they tried to accept that far and away from the modern world, there were still places and cultures that were vastly different from theirs. Anyway, without further adieu, I bring you King of the Zombies.

Released in 1941, King of the Zombies was a horror comedy that really is a great example of where society was at the time. Paramount had a big hit called The Ghost Breakers which was a Bob Hope vehicle that came out the previous year. It made all kinds of money and was also a horror comedy, so Monogram Pictures (which was a low budget production company at the time) wanted in on the action. They tried to get Béla Lugosi for the role of Dr. Sangre but he wasn’t available, so they grabbed Henry Victor, a well-known character actor.

So what’s it about? Well basically a trio of men, (Mac, Bill and Mac’s servant Jeff) are flying on a mission over the Caribbean during World War II. They run low on fuel and become lost during a storm. They crash down on some uncharted Island that is emitting a feint radio signal and they are soon greeted by Dr. Sangre who invites them to stay at his mansion until they can be rescued. It isn’t long before Jeff realizes that there are Zombies on the island and that Dr Sangre is not who he appears to be. The entire movie is basically Jeff telling them he’s seeing Zombies and nobody really believing him. Part way through the movie I couldn’t believe the main characters were -still- not listening.

An interesting thing about this film is that it was shot just before the Americans entered WWII. Dr. Sangre’s cover story is that he is an Austrian refugee and he and his wife are hiding on this Island. The movie also suggests that there is a mysterious “European Government” behind the whole thing. There are plenty of other nods here and there that essentially make this a spy movie in a lot of ways, but I can’t really give them away without spoiling the entire movie.

So, what about the comedy? Well, this is where it gets dicey. As a modern audience it’s difficult to watch this and ignore the fact that all of the comedy is based upon the fact that Jeff (Mantan Moreland) is black. In fact, a lot of the characters in this movie are. Every cliché that you could imagine is present. The low intelligence, bug-eyed stares, a string of double negatives that honestly made my brain hurt. That being said, it is funny, and understanding where a film like this sits in film history is important. I don’t really have it in me to justify or condemn any decision that was made by people in the 1940’s about racism.

This film is an interesting addition to the Zombie genre as a whole. It was one of the first Zombie/Comedy films ever made (something that wouldn’t be duplicated well until the 1980’s) and, interestingly enough, conveyed the concepts of Voodoo to a modern audience. They reference that the belief of raising the dead was prevalent in all cultures at one point or another by pointing out the customs of ancient Druids to one of the Irish characters. All that, and it even got nominated for an Academy Award for best music. You don’t see that too often for a horror/comedy.

The story is pretty flimsy and, honestly, I found the portrayal of hypnosis, Voodoo, and black people to be hilariously outdated. That being said, when it comes to Zombie flicks from the 1940’s, it doesn’t get any better. Stay tuned, next up we’ll be heading to the 1950’s.

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