King of the Zombies (1941)

Genres - Horror  |   Release Date - May 14, 1941 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 67 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Richard Gilliam

Your tolerance for King of the Zombies will likely depend on your viewpoint toward the self-deprecating ethnic humor of black comedic actor Mantan Moreland, who, despite his third billing behind two white actors, is the film's star. While it's true that Moreland is once again playing a servant, the basic story-structure is not unlike Gosford Park in that the servants are the ones who understand what's going on. Because roles of any sort for black actors were scarce in Hollywood in the 1940s, even Poverty Row studios like Monogram could afford very good supporting casts. The ostensibly top-billed Dick Purcell and Joan Woodbury were prolific B-movie performers of little distinction. Here they are tepid duds, unable to do much more than occupy space on the screen. The film's most interesting moments come from Moreland, Leigh Whipper, and Marguerite Whitten, and to a lesser extent from Henry Victor and John Archer. Because King of the Zombies was released in May 1941, some months before the United States entered World War II, Victor's villainous Dr. Sangre is a disguised Nazi rather than an outright one. It's one of his better performances, though here he has not so nearly as good a screenplay as he did when playing Hercules, the strongman in Tod Browning's 1932 horror classic Freaks, or the harried comedic foil of Jack Benny in Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 masterpiece To Be or Not to Be. Rarely an innovator, Monogram, like much of the rest of Hollywood, tended to imitate the types of films that were successful elsewhere. King of the Zombies' horror-comedy inspiration comes most directly from Bob Hope's 1940 hit The Ghost Breakers with Willie Best in the servant role and Noble Johnson as the zombie. As bad as King of the Zombies is, it's not much better or worse than the quasi-remake Revenge of the Zombies that Monogram cobbled together a year later. If you really want to see King of the Zombies, it tends to turn up on the television schedule each March as a part of cable station TNT's "31 Days of Oscar." Because of the rules in effect for films released in 1941, every studio was guaranteed at least one nomination in the Musical Score category. Monogram got a freebie and placed Edward Kay on the ballot. Kay's score largely consists of minimalist motifs repeated against the background of beating voodoo drums. Even for a Poverty Row studio like Monogram it's pretty bad, and would likely be a leading contender if anyone bothered to put together a list of the all-time worst Oscar nominations.