We kick off our tribute to Joe Dante and some of his favorite classic horror films with a look at 1941’s irreverent “King of the Zombies”.
JOE DANTE'S FILM INFERNO
In September 2022, the legendary filmmaker Joe Dante curated a day of monstrous mayhem in partnership with Scream Factory. The horror master picked seven films that were very near and dear to his heart. In honor of the anniversary of one the most beloved genre treasures from Dante, Gremlins (June 8, 1984), the Morbidly Beautiful team is revisiting some of Dante’s biggest influences and letting you know why you need to add these essential classics to your watch list.
1941 was a crazy year for the world.
Hitler invaded Russia, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the first human being was successfully treated with penicillin, and Citizen Kane was released, as were the horror classics The Wolf Man, The Black Cat, and a lesser-known film called King of the Zombies.
One thing you can be sure of about movies with “zombie” in the title before 1968 – the zombies in question are so-called “voodoo zombies”, dead humans brought back to life by black magic to perform tasks for the living.
When I found out this zombie comedy was on a short list of Joe Dante’s favorite films, I had to check it out. After all, Dante was responsible for scaring the shit out of me as a kid, not with Gremlins (1984), which was iconic, but with The Howling (1981) as well as his segment of Twilight Zone the Movie (1983), a remake of the old Zone episode “It’s a Good Life”.
It’s easy to see how this zany gem might have had an influence on Dante, who always had a flair for good comedy, even in his most terrifying fare.
While the plot is a thriller, the laughs are plentiful, even in this modern age in which a lot of them aren’t necessarily politically correct.
There is a style of comedy that disappeared with the civil rights movement, that of the “Stepin Fetchit” type character, or the “servile negro” popularized by African American actors like Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry, Willie “Sleep ‘n Eat” Best, and of course Mantan Moreland, best known as the scared, wide-eyed manservant from the Charlie Chan movies.
It’s Moreland who steals the show in King of the Zombies, with some help from longtime collaborator Marguerite Whitten (Professor Creeps).
As in many Stepin Fetchit-style roles, Moreland used negative stereotypes of the time to cause the antagonists of the movie to underestimate his character.
In fact, it was such antics that helped the actually clever and intelligent black man to survive – a trend that would eventually be phased out when it would become more common for “the brother to die first,” according to a perhaps overstated but still valid trope that continued through the decades leading up to Black Lives Matter.
The plot itself is almost inconsequential.
Like the Bowery Boys and Abbot & Costello send-ups that were also popular at the time, it merely served as a glue to hold together a framework for scares and sight gags.
But just to refresh your memory about the time period and what was on everyone’s minds, it involves a Capelis XC-12 transport aircraft flown by pilot James “Mac” McCarthy (Dick Purcell, the original Captain America), which is blown off course by a freak storm.
Flying scenes at the time were hugely popular, not just due to the war effort but advancements in flight technology in general.
The plane crash-lands on a remote island in the Caribbean with passenger Bill Summers (John Archer, Orson Welles’ original replacement on The Shadow radio drama) and his black valet (Moreland), who seek shelter in a mansion owned by Dr. Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor, the strongman from Freaks, who was a last-minute replacement for Bela Lugosi).
In a gaslighting comedy of errors style that predates Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein by about seven years, Moreland’s character continuously insists that the castle is inhabited by zombies, only to be summarily ignored by his bosses, even though he confirms it with some of Dr. Sangre’s hired help.
Soon the group discovers what’s really happening, which includes the zombies as well as a voodoo ritual in the dungeon being conducted by the doctor, who, of course, happens to be a German spy trying to acquire war intelligence from a captured US Admiral whose aircraft also just happens to have crash-landed nearby.
The good guys manage to stop the ritual, which causes the zombies to turn on their master in what was probably a terrifying scene for its time. As a result, the doctor falls into a firepit and dies, which releases all the zombies from his spell.
I’m not gonna lie, irreverent humor, even the not-quite-politically-correct, cracks me up. I laughed my ass off pretty much throughout the whole movie (something I wish I could say about modern comedies). I was always a big fan of Stepin Fetchit, but I hadn’t seen Moreland’s work apart from a couple of Chan movies in my childhood before catching King of the Zombies, and now I want to watch everything he ever did; he’s just funny as hell.
King of the Zombies is for anyone who appreciates an excellent horror comedy, from Abbot & Costello Meet (insert monster of the week here) to Rockula to Zombieland; the heart is there, the gags are great, and the laughs are plenty.
Joe Dante, my man, thanks for the recommendation. Catch it on YouTube or in better quality on Amazon Prime.
S. Michael Simms married his high school sweetheart and is the father of three daughters and a son. He graduated with honors from St. Mary-of-the-Woods College with a degree in psychology and is a social work case manager for the Department of Child Services. On weekends he digs up bodies and relieves them of their possessions before donating them to science. Read Full
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