KING OF THE ZOMBIES, 1941
Starring: Dick Purcell, Mantan Moreland, John Archer
During World War 2, a small plane off the south coast of America is low on fuel and blown off course by a storm. Guided by a faint radio signal, they crashland on an island. The passenger, his manservant and the pilot take refuge in a mansion owned by a doctor. The easily-spooked manservant soon becomes convinced the mansion is haunted by zombies and ghosts. Exploring, the 3 find a voodoo ritual in the cellar, where the doctor is trying to acquire war intelligence by transferring personalities into his zombies. But the interruption causes the zombies to turn on their creator.
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Films like King of the Zombies are essentially perfect contextual films, movies that not only predates and influences the infamous B-films of the 1950s, but also truly showcases a reflection of pre-WWII America. Granted, it was one year prior to our involvement - meaning we were already providing aid to Europe as well as forming the established anti-German rhetoric - but even then, we have quite a bit of choice trivia and information from which we can infer.
For example, as of today, the "zombie craze" has reached a pinnacle of sorts, exploring the idea of the walking dead through both serious and ironic turns, through movies, TV, games, and comics. It's interesting to note, then, that (according to the DVD), a similar zombie fad was moving fairly strongly at this time as well! Like Zombieland, the mindless creatures were more spoofed than feared, but there was still a proliferation of these types of themed films in 1941 America.
So make no mistake: King of the Zombies is a spoof, an extremely simple and straight forward tale of three people on a government mission who crash land on a remote island in the Caribbean. Their oddly endearing host, a doctor of some sort, lets them stay with him, but soon they discover the doctor is in cahoots with natives, forcing them to use hypnotism and/or voodoo to create a race of zombies. Also, the voodoo can be used to force a previously-marooned admiral to share his government secrets.
This is all laughable, dear readers. Is it voodoo or hypnotism that makes the natives into zombies? How come the natives don't care? There are ton of plotholes, even by 1941 standards, and if that didn't indicate the film's levity, the casting of Mantan Moreland did. I'd be remiss not to mention the controversy of African-American actors during this time, desperate men and women trying to find work in a heavily-discriminatory Hollywood, while at the same time, putting up with the NAACP's constant demands to protest the subservient, ignorant portrayals that black actors were forced to play. Moreland was a comedian who excelled at that kind of role, and, awkwardness aside, has expert timing and great delivery for his character. One scene, where he jumps as several candles go out, one by one, is so perfectly timed that even the most prominent progressives would have to applaud it.
It wears its anti-German themes on its face, as when the doctor sends German messages to his "leader" via a radio, and it's not a far leap to showcase those that blindly follow the doctor's orders, whether natives or women, are indeed zombies. There's also something to be said about having the African-American characters play the majority of the zombies, a sentiment that arguably suggests a social mentality that implies that the "simple-minded" are handily mentally-manipulated. Of course such an idea is ludicrous now, but it isn't a far-fetched believe in 1941 terms, especially when considering how easily Moreland is "transformed"... and then back again.
King of the Zombies is a brief but curious film, a work that really is more definitive of a specific time period than indicative of a style or theme. It calls back to an era that has been overshadowed by the infamous war, but such movies open up a side of history beyond WW2 that is definitely worth exploring.