Thursday, 4 July 2013

King of the Zombies - review

1941 (USA)

2010 included on Ultimate Horror Classics SD Blu-ray R(All)

Contains spoilers.

Now this is why I'm doing this. How else would I have firstly come across then secondly chosen to watch and actually appreciate such an old world black and white gem.

It's World War 2 and pilot James "Mac" McCarthy (Dick Purcell), passenger  Bill Summers (John Archer) and his black manservant Jefferson "Jeff" Jackson (Mantan Moreland) off course and running low on fuel crash land on a small Caribbean island guided by a faint radio signal. Here they take refuge in nearby mansion owned by a refuge Austrian Dr. Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor, but originally penned for  Béla Lugosi) who tells them they will have to remain his guests for several weeks before the next supply ship arrives.

Forced to sleep and eat with the other servants the hilarious star of the film Jeff sits to eat and is informed quite openly by the other servants that many zombies also work and live at the mansion. Unnerved by this but trying not to make much fuss he settles down to sleep only to be approached by two. Thus begins a genuinely funny back and forward between him and his employer and pilot. He knows what he's seen and they know he can't of. I really can't emphasise how good Mantan Moreland is at playing this role with quick perfectly timed one-liners and perfect interplay with the straight men.

All the while Dr. Sangre in his secret underground caves is preparing a rite of transmigration to extract important war information from a previous crash victim, an Admiral Arthur Wainwright by transferring his thoughts through the Doctors hypnotised wife.

It's daft stuff but it knows it with each actor whether playing the US jock pilot or colonial have-a-brandy-stay-calm gent all hamming it up from start to end.  While the characters are all complete colonial racial stereotypes, and wouldn't be tolerated today, it is very much a product of its time and playing up these roles is an integral part of the comedy. Beyond this I'd even argue that if anything its all quietly subversive as it's Jeff that really solves the mystery and provides all the entertainment while the two white men stumble about clueless. There's even the symbolism inherent in having one of these white guys turn into a zombie taking his place alongside and equal to the black undead.

It's the 1940s and way before Romero so the word zombie still comes with drums and voodoo attached. Very much under the control of their master the zombies in King of the Zombies are the recently deceased, dug up and reanimated by magic. They stare blindly ahead and shuffle around doing their masters bidding very much like in White Zombie or The Plague of the Zombies. We learn they respond to a clap and require food as if implying reanimation is exactly that, back alive but without the mind or soul. In a hilarious scene with Jeff hypnotised into believing he one of the zombies he complains about the lack of salt in the food. Samantha, the Maid (Marguerite Whitten) who has taken a bit of a shine to Jeff tells him not only shouldn't he be talking if he's a zombie, but eating salt is bad for zombies, re-killing them and if he was a zombie he wouldn't have a reflection in a mirror. Interesting stuff...

It's quirky and silly with few sets and awkward conversation but far and away, not only one of my favourite old zombie films but perhaps one of my favourite to date and I'm actually already keen to watch it again. I believe it also has some part to play in the zombie story too despite never seeing it really referenced. In the big finale Mac, now a zombie definitely raises his arms as he goes for Dr. Sangre. I heard the phrases 'living dead', 'she lives but walks in the land of those beyond', 'zombiefied' and even 'dezombified' and I can't recall hearing them before. A very easily loveable black-comedy, 8/10.


1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you like this one, I feel it's a pretty underrated little gem from the 40s.