I went into this expecting something like White Zombie with Bela Lugosi. In tone and quality, it was no White Zombie. King of the Zombies is a comedy intended to capitalize on (i.e. ripoff) the success of Bob Hope’s Ghost Breakers released the previous year. I can’t say how successful it was at the box office, but as a comedy, it is not a complete failure, except by all modern cultural standards.
Mac McCarthy is piloting a plane carrying Bill Summers and Jeff Jackson. They have lost their way “somewhere between Cuba and Puerto Rico”, which is apparently what they called Haiti in 1941. Running low on fuel, Mac says he must put the plane down in the jungle. Jeff observes, “I knew I wasn’t cut out to be no blackbird.” Thus, Jeff is established as the comedy center in a Stepin Fetchit sort of caricature; he is even sitting in the back of the plane.
The model plane lands in the model jungle knocking over a few model trees on the way. Despite all 3 men being thrown from the fuselage in the crash, they are unhurt. Jeff, however, wakes up believing himself to be dead. When Bill assures him they are alive, Jeff says, “I thought I was a little off-color to be a ghost.”
They find a house in the jungle and let themselves in. The owner Miklos Sangre greets them and offers them drinks. You can’t accuse the movie of not being multi-culti when the villain is an Austrian refugee with a Greek first name, Spanish last name, and German accent. Mac tells the owner that they picked up a strange radio broadcast as they were landing. The owner says he must be mistaken, there is no broadcast. The next boat is not due for 2 weeks, but he offers them rooms.
Naturally, Jeff can’t stay upstairs with decent (i.e.white) folk, so he is escorted downstairs. Getting a glimpse of the titular Zombies, Jeff bolts back upstairs and begs his companions to leave.
Sangre introduces them to his wife who seems to be a Zombie, or at least a real cold fish. And his niece who is not. Mac inquires about another plane which crashed in the area recently. Sangre pleads ignorance, but will “ask the natives” in the morning.
Sangre is clearly modeled after Bela Lugosi’s character in White Zombie. Lugosi was actually offered the role, but was unavailable. The script still reflects his participation when Sangre says, “Zombies never eat . . . meat” mimicking Lugosi’s line in Dracula, “I never drink . . . wine.” Although that doesn’t make sense when you think about it.
This is all Mantan Moreland’s movie. Apart from a few quips from Sangre’s “help”, no one else has any laugh-lines. It is easy to cry raaaaacism, but really, was Bob Hope a symbol of manhood playing so many cowards back then? Didn’t Lou Costello play a a man-child idiot for decades? Moreland became one of the first black millionaires, and was a pretty funny guy, often improvising lines. Sadly, it appears that Hollywood was offended by his shtick and banished him in 1949; he did not make another movie for 15 years.
Someone would have to be having a pretty bad day for me to recommend them spending 67 minutes of it on this. In fact, I can’t imagine such a scenario. On the plus side, I did finish it and had a couple of guilty laughs.
- Incredibly, Edward J. Kay’s musical score was nominated for an Academy Award in 1942. He didn’t win, but then his competition included Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, and Bernard Herrmann for Citizen Kane. Impossible to imagine Hollywood snobs today even admitting to watching a movie like this.
- Mantan Moreland was considered as a replacement in the Three Stooges after Shemp died. Anyone who saw the post-Shemp shorts knows that he could only have improved them.
- Holy crap, I had no idea Stepin Fetchit lived until 1985.
- Or that his son killed 3 and injured 15 as the Pike Killer shooter on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1969.
- Available on YouTube, but why would ya?