King Of The Zombies: See it for Mantan

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King Of The Zombies directed by Jean Yarbrough horror film reviewsKing Of The Zombies directed by Jean Yarbrough

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFilm buffs who are desirous of getting their hands on the obscure little horror/comedy King of the Zombies (1941) seemingly have no other option than buying the DVD currently available from the Roan Group. This DVD is actually a pretty good deal, as residing on its flip side is the second zombie movie ever made, 1936’s Revolt of the Zombies (1932’s White Zombie was, of course, the first). But be forewarned: ROTZ is a fairly terrible film, slow moving and deadly dull, despite its 65-minute length. I have written elsewhere of this pathetic little stinker, in which Dean Jagger learns the secret of zombification in the ruins of Angkor Wat and uses his newfound powers to take vengeance on the fiancée who had jilted him. Happily, KOTZ is an entirely different proposition. While certainly nobody’s idea of an exemplar of the cinematic arts, it is at least entertaining, and very often quite funny. Though made on the proverbial shoestring by “Poverty Row” studio Monogram Pictures and clocking in at a brief 68 minutes, here, the viewer is left quite contented, although actually wishing for more.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn the film, three men on a mission for the Navy crash-land on a very strange island in the Caribbean. Pilot “Mac” McCarthy (Dick Purcell, who would go on to star in the Captain America serial in 1943) tells his two fellows that they are “somewhere between Cuba and Porto Reeker,” while fellow officer Bill Summers (John Archer) frets and his manservant, Jefferson “Jeff” Jackson (an absolutely hilarious Mantan Moreland), offers up a steady stream of pop-eyed one-liners. Their plane a hopeless wreck, the trio seeks shelter at the gloomy abode of Dr. Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor, who many will recall as circus strongman Hercules in the 1932 classic Freaks). Sangre’s household, however, is a strange one. His butler Momba (Leigh Whipper) and cook Tahama (Madame Sul-Te-Wan, who would go on to appear with Moreland in the 1943 film Revenge of the Zombies) are like the denizens of a spook house, while – what else? – the living dead walk the halls, the creations of Sangre for an unnamed foreign power. And then things grow even worse, as both Mac and Jeff are turned into zombies, and Sangre plots to use his pretty niece (Joan Woodbury) in a voodoo ceremony to effect transmigration…

To my delighted surprise, King of the Zombies turns out to be a perfectly acceptable entertainment for both young and old. Writing of the film in his excellent encyclopedia Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide, author Glenn Kay bemoans the “cheapness of the production” and the film’s “sluggish pace,” leading him to give the picture “stinker status.” But I think Kay is being much too harsh here. Yes, the film surely was made on the cheap, but director Jean Yarbrough (who had previously helmed 1940’s The Devil Bat and would go on to direct 1946’s The Brute Man and, uh, 1967’s Hillbillys in a Haunted House) keeps things moving along very well; the picture is never boring and has decent-enough production values … at least, as compared to ROTZ! The film LOOKS just fine, and builds to a fairly tense little conclusion (that voodoo ceremony). And the picture’s music, by composer Edward Kay (no relation to Glenn, I would imagine!), features a surprisingly earwormlike opening theme and a highly hummable voodoo chant; amazingly, the musical score for this picture was actually nominated for an Academy Award! Our three heroes are extremely likable men, and as for Mantan … well, he easily steals the movie; in fact, without his always amusing presence, I shudder to think what a drag this film might have been. Far from employing the Stepin Fetchit style of embarrassing black caricature that has torpedoed so many other films of that era, Moreland is ingratiating, cool and, in general, a riot! Yes, his eyes bug out quite often to the point where one would think him an advanced glaucoma patient, and yes, he is capable of uttering a line on the order of “Who’s thems?,” but overall, the actor/comedian’s performance here should sit very well with modern-day audiences. Just about every single line that Moreland delivers is hysterical. (It did not surprise me to learn that Mantan was briefly considered when Shemp left The Three Stooges!) When he awakens in a cemetery after the crash landing and learns that he is NOT dead, he declares, “I thought I was a little off-color to be a ghost!” After he’s asked what he thinks of Tahama’s magic potion, he opines, “I don’t know, but it ain’t kosher!” After Sangre hypnotizes him into being a zombie, he declares to a file of the undead, “Move over, boys, I’m one of the gang now.” And when Summers asks him what he thinks of the distant voodoo drums, he responds, “I don’t know, but it ain’t Gene Krupa!” In short, Moreland maintains his dignity throughout, and never embarrasses the viewer once, as the mumbling, “I’s a’coming” Fetchit always did. I believe that I had previously only seen Moreland in one other film, the cult classic Spider Baby (1964), in which his role is a small one. Seeing him in KOTZ has made this viewer an instant fan, and I eagerly look forward to seeing Revenge one day, in which Mantan reprises his hilarious “Jeff” Jackson character. Anyway, the bottom line, I suppose, is that KOTZ is certainly nothing great, but darn it, this movie is both fun AND funny … again, unlike ROTZ, which really rots and is absolutely devoid of humor. Apropos of its zombie theme, perhaps, ROTZ was dead on arrival. KOTZ, on the other hand, just might make you howl with laughter to awaken the dead…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough’s finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a “misspent youth” of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship — although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century — and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror… but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle “ferbs54.” Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club….

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3 comments

  1. Quite often a shoestring budget means the director has to get creative bout storytelling, and some really good movies are created! I’m startled that these run just a little over an hour… that is short.

    • sandy ferber /

      Well, Marion, short it might be, but when you add in the co-feature, the trailers, the news reel, the cartoons and so on, the audiences back when still got their 25 cents’ worth, I suppose….

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