Saturday, October 06, 2012
King of the Zombies (1941)
Who's in it?: Dick Purcell (Captain America serial); Mantan Moreland (lots of Charlie Chan movies); Henry Victor (Freaks); some other folks.
What's it about?: A government agent crashes on a Caribbean island and discovers a mansion full of zombies and Nazis.
How is it?: Originally designed as a vehicle for Bela Lugosi, King of the Zombies feels like the many low-budget horror movies he made in the '30s and '40s. Unfortunately, neither Lugosi nor Peter Lorre (the producer's back-up plan) was available, so the role of Dr. Miklos Sangre went to character actor Henry Victor. He does a good job, but he's nowhere near as memorable as the first two choices.
Unlike the other two zombie movies in this series (White Zombie and Revolt of the Zombies), Sangre doesn't use his power for anything as pathetic as forcing women to be with the creepy dudes in love with them. It's 1941 and Sangre is all about the world-domination. King of the Zombies never comes out and says it, but Sangre's obviously a Nazi agent. He's kidnapped a U.S. admiral and it's the officer's disappearance that brings agent Bill Summers (John Archer) to the Caribbean with a pilot (Captain America himself, Dick Purcell) and - oddly - a valet (Moreland). Sangre's plan is to transfer the admiral's consciousness to a zombie, who will then give Sangre the information that the admiral refuses to share. It's a creative way of using the zombie concept (since they're basically empty, soulless husks) and I love the spy angle.
The sets are also really cool and there are plenty of secret passages and spooky graveyards for the heroes to explore.
The movie's problem is Moreland's character, Jeff Jackson. It's not that he's not funny. Moreland was a talented comedian and one of the few black actors to have a successful career in mainstream Hollywood in his day. His schtick is dated though and can be difficult to enjoy depending on how sensitive you are. He's wide-eyed and scared all the time in a really slapsticky way, and most of his jokes are about the color of his skin.
He also gets kind of thrown under the bus by Summers and Mac the pilot once they're in Sangre's mansion. Early in the film, the two men treat him sort of like a mascot, but it's kind of deserved since he insists on acting like one. He doesn't really deserve his treatment at the mansion though. Sangre insists that Jeff sleep with the other servants so that they don't get ideas about how servants and masters should relate to each other. Summers agrees to it over Jeff's objections. He insists he's just trying to be a good guest, but he's pretty callous about it. It's disturbing to see Jeff have no say while the other two men discuss him.
To Summers and Mac's credit though, once Jeff sneaks back with tales of zombies in the house, they listen to him. They're skeptical, but compassionate enough to let him stay with them the rest of the night. Not that any of them get to spend much more time in the room. This is a zombie spy movie after all. Zombies to kill, Nazis to catch, and all that. There's even a girl to kiss (Sangre's niece, played by Joan Woodbury).