King of the Zombies

06/09/2021 06:41

Film: King of the Zombies

Year: 1941

Director: Jean Yarbrough

Writer: Edmond Kelso

Starring: Dick Purcell, Joan Woodbury and Mantan Moreland



This was a movie that I've heard about, but I'm not necessarily where. I believe it was on a podcast, but not completely sure which one. If I had to guess, it would be Attack of the Colossal Collection as this feels like it would be part of a multi-pack DVD. This one popped up when I was going through Letterboxd for movies from 1941 so I'm making it part of my Odyssey through the Ones. The synopsis here is on a spooky island, three stranded travelers find an evil doctor working with foreign spies and in control of zombies.

We start on an airplane. The passengers are in the middle of a storm which has blown them off course. Their pilot is James McCarthy (Dick Purcell). He is using the radio, but cannot raise anyone. With him is Bill Summers (John Archer) and Jefferson 'Jeff' Jackson (Mantan Moreland). They do pick up a radio broadcast of someone speaking German. Mac decides to land them on the nearby island to regroup.

Their landing isn't smooth and they crash into a cemetery. No one is seriously harmed. It is spooky and to make it worse, they hear drums. They realize there must be people nearby. As they go searching they find a large house. They go inside and meet the owner of Dr. Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor). He allows them to stay and introduces the group to his servant Momba (Leigh Whipper) as well as his wife Alyce (Patricia Stacey). She is afflicted with something where she is in a zombie-like state and he's trying to find a cure.

Mac and Bill are taken to rooms, but Dr. Sangre informs Jeff he has to stay in the servant quarters due to the color of his skin. It is there he meets Tahama (Madame Sul-Te-Wan), an old woman who seems to be a witch of sorts, and Samantha (Marguerite Whitten). He tries a brew that Tahama is making and he then gets spook when he sees two zombies. He flees back to his friends, but when the group comes down to verify what he saw, they're gone. Tahama and Samantha state he must be drunk off the brew that he tried.

From here Mac's wounds from the crash are tended to and they meet Dr. Sangre's niece Barbara Winslow (Joan Woodbury). She is related to his wife and she is worried about her aunt. She wants to take her away from this island, but Dr. Sangre won't allow it. They have fled here from Austria without passports, so they cannot actually go anywhere else either. Something strange is when the radio broadcast the men heard is brought up. Dr. Sangre states it is impossible. There is no radio on the island. This isn't the first time a plane has gone down in the area. An admiral went missing the week before.

Despite what Dr. Sangre is saying, things aren't adding up. Mac, Bill and Jeff look into what is going on with this island. Barbara decides to help and agrees there is something wrong here. What is really going on with this island?

That is where I'm going to leave my recap. This movie is quite interesting to me. Now I tend to watch everything that I can with subtitles on. From the beginning, I knew that the language on the radio broadcast during the plane scene was in German due to the subtitles confirming it. Hearing some of the words spoken, I would have picked up on that as well. This is important as to when this movie came out which was again was 1941. Hitler was in power. The movie never confirms it, but this is technically a Nazi movie as our villain is most likely one. They wanted this movie to be shown in Germany so they never go explicit, but I give credit for taking a more subtle approach.

It is pretty clear that Dr. Sangre is our villain here. I think it is intriguing to have this character here in the Caribbean, as this is new place for them. What is interesting as well, I do know that the Nazis were into the occult. This wasn't known back in 41 as far as I know, so it makes it wild that we have this potential Nazi dabbling in voodoo and hypnotism. They did a pretty seamless meshing of these elements that really worked for me. It is fitting as well that Mac and Bill are working for the government and have more stake in finding out what happened to Adm. Wainwright (Guy Usher).

There is an elephant in the room here as well which is racism. Dr. Sangre has slaves with Momba, Tahama and Samantha. He is outright rude to Jeff telling him how it wouldn’t work giving him a room due to the color of his skin. Eventually he gives in to Mac and Bill, recognizing that Jeff is their 'servant' so he can’t actually tell him what to do. I don't think that's really his position with them, but that is how it looks. Mac and Bill are silent and abiding at first to what Dr. Sangre so their silence and not standing up to him doesn't look good for them. I do give credit that they do eventually. There is some more prejudice here as well with Jeff toward Samantha as she is a woman. I will acknowledge 41 was a different time. It doesn't make it right though.

Then really the last parts of the story I want to go into is the 'supernatural' elements. This came out of course before Night of the Living Dead. We are getting the more traditional zombies here which worked. Jeff sees Alyce at one point, thinking she's a ghost. It makes sense as she is wearing all white and he sees her in the dark. There is the use of hypnotism along with voodoo rituals as well. I did enjoy the use of all of these elements.

Moving then to the acting, the cast is interesting to me. Purcell is billed as our lead, but he doesn't feel like it. He's more of the muscle where I thought Archer as Bill was our hero. Purcell fits his role well much like Archer. Woodbury is pretty high on the cast list, but she really has very little screen time. I also don't think they do well in fleshing out her character. I did like seeing Moreland, a person of color, being cast here. I don't like how this era wrote them to be unintelligent. He's really here for more comic relief. He was funny though, I will give credit there. Victor is a good villain as well. Aside from that, I'd say that Whipper, Sul-Te-Wan, Whitten and the rest of the cast rounded this out for what was needed. Again, I give credit for casting other black people here for these roles.

Then really the last thing I wanted to go over would be the effects. For being early cinema, we don't really get a lot of them. It also didn't need them. For the zombies, they look just like slaves who are dead-eyed. I thought that was good. The setting here is also interesting. This is an 'old, dark house' film that is taking place in the Caribbean. There are hidden passages and what not that I really enjoy. The cinematography also works here as well. It is quite basic, but I don't have problems there.

In conclusion here then, I did enjoy this movie. This movie seems to be taking subtle shots at Nazi Germany without going too far. I like combining that element with voodoo and even the old dark house film. It makes for some interesting situations and setting here. I'd say that the acting for the most part is solid. The soundtrack fit for what was needed. I was shocked to see that it was up for awards though. There is some racism here and bit of sexism that doesn't sit well with me, but it was fine for the era I'm watching as it is a time gone by. I also think that due to the censors; some things were done in order to pass that make it a bit too clinched for the Hollywood ending. Despite my issues, I think this is an above average movie. Some of my problems just knock it out of being good.


My Rating: 7.5 out of 10