An ancestor to zombie movies genre, “King of the Zombies” seemed to me as a must to show you guys. Even though I do not consider myself a zombie genre fan, it’s interesting where it all started. At least on the grounds of cinema. Although Jean Yarbrough’s movie was very probably not the first one to introduce the concept of walking deads, it’s definitely interesting piece of cinematography. Particularly, for reasons other than zombies themselves, but the portrayal of the social background of American reality in the 30s…
Three travelers end up on a ghastly island, where they find a shelter at a luxurious mansion of an eccentric doctor. The more time they spend in the spacious house, the more incredible and terrifying things come to the daylight.
“King of the Zombies” is one of those vintage flicks, which relies solely on performance of one actor. Mantan Moreland, playing the role of a servant Jeff, fires with zingers and mean comments without any break, but it actually holds the entire show at a watchable level. The incredibly pompous Dr. Sangre, portrayed by Henry Victor, is quite irritating – as well as the rest of very schematically playing crew. Nevertheless, the vision of quite harmless zombies used as brainless servants mixed with presence of racism in every piece of “King of the Zombies” seemed compelling to me, yet original and different from what we’re given nowadays. The zombies have turned into a synonym for a disgusting bloodshed, rather than a disturbing life-after-death creation. This 20th century flick could be named an inspiration to many filmmakers – I’m certain “Braindead” by Peter Jackson was an effect of watching Yarbrough’s oldie.
As I stated before, a disturbing point regarding “King of the Zombies” is the ubiquitous presence of insults on a racism ground. Understandably, times are changin’ – quoting Bob Dylan. Nevertheless, Mantan Moreland’s character is treated worse than a brainless zombie, which for a modern viewer, might be a bit… unexpected. Why is it so then? One reason could be the so-called “Jim Crow laws”, which implied that African Americans were an inferior race. Since “King of the Zombies” was being directed and released in 1941, the World War II was at its beginning phase. Later on, when African-American soldiers started to support the American troops, the society also began to change, favoring them as equal.
What you actually might not believe, this movie received an Oscar nomination! Edward Kay (just check this: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0443033/?ref_=ttawd_awd_1) has received one for the music composed to Yarbrough’s film. The director himself was also very prolific as the composer mentioned above, but “King of the Zombies” was not honored with any other prizes. Nevertheless, I kind of feel that the Oscars did not change that much in terms of the quality – despite my joy while watching Jean Yearbrough’s horror comedy, I can hardly hum a single theme from it. Not a good sign for an Oscar-nominee composer, right?
Wrapping things up, I won’t say that ‘King of the Zombies” could be placed in the same line with some less popular flicks by Kubrick, Bergman or Fellini. It is not even the league of some smaller players like James Whale (“The Invisible Man” review can be found here). Even though it’s full of irritating acting mannerism, it still provides entertainment. And let’s be honest, ain’t it what we all expect from a movie?
The movie ‘King of the Zombies” is available online on Youtube, without subtitles.
Parts of the text was based on the following site: http://tuskegeeairmeninthesky.weebly.com/segregation-in-the-1940s.html