“Zombies, what’s them?” “Dead folks, what walks around.”
During a storm, James ‘Mac” McCarthy (Dick Purcell) is piloting a small plane over water somewhere between Cuba and Puerto Rico. His passengers are Bill Summers (John Archer), an American spy, and Jeff Jackson (Mantan Moreland), Summers’ valet. They are looking for Admiral Arthur Wainwright who reportedly disappeared in the area. Losing their way in the storm and running low on fuel the plane crashes on a remote island.
The island happens to be the home of an Austrian, Dr. Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor) and his wife Alyce (Patricia Stacey). Sangre’s niece Barbara Winslow (Joan Woodbury) also lives on the island. The three men are invited into Sangre’s mansion.
It’s not long before Jeff finds out that there are zombies in the house. One of the servants Samantha (Marguerite Whitten) tells Jeff about them. Jeff tells Mac and Bill but they don’t believe him. Things get even stranger when Mac gets ill and Jeff is hypnotized to think he’s a zombie.
It takes awhile but Bill finally starts to believe that there is something fishy going on, and it doesn’t mean zombies. He realizes that Sangre is up to something more sinister than ghosts and haunted mansions.
Exploring the house he finds a voodoo ceremony in the basement, the missing Admiral Wainwright and a spy and Nazi sympathizer looking for intel.
“King of the Zombies” was released in 1941 and was directed by Jean Yarbrough. This is a poverty row film released by Monogram Picture Corporation. The movie is a comedy/horror film.
The cast supports quite a number of black actors. The main star of the film is of course Mantan Moreland. Mantan was a well known comic of the era. The word comedy is subjective here. A more appropriate term would be racist comedy. It was OK for black comics to be funny, as long as they were making fun of themselves. I am quite sure the black community in the forties did not see the film as humorous as whites. Mantan is a funny man and a good actor, unfortunately for him the majority of the roles available for a black actor, comic or otherwise, did not show his true talent and forced him to play stereotypical black characters.
Even so, Mantan is on screen more than any other actor and his character is the smartest one of the bunch. He is the first to see what is going on. Even though Mac and Bill tell him he is imagining things, he maintains his belief that what he saw was real. His exchange with Marguerite Whitten shows off the talent of both stars in better light. The light snappy banter between the two of them lets both of them shine.
The film is a product of its time. If you find humor in, it that’s fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too. We cannot change how humor was perceived in the past but we can try to learn from it. In that regard the film is of historical importance as a snapshot of humor, funny or not, of the forties.