Reviews
King of the Zombies (1941) 1 brain1 brain
(USA)

Watching King of the Zombies brought up some issues unrelated to zombie films in particular, but as the saying goes, "It's my website, and I'll pontificate if I want to." The movie features a government agent, his black manservant, and a pilot crash landing on an island on which a mysterious doctor lives. The doctor turns out to be a German spy who is interrogating a captured American admiral for war secrets, using voodoo to create a local zombie force.

PONTIFICATION STARTS HERE.

The reason that I mention that the manservant is black is that when I first saw this film, it came off as racist. The manservant Jeff Jackson, played by the prolific Mantan Moreland, is intended to be the comic relief for the film, sometimes through witty banter with the other characters, but also many times through playing out what I thought might be the "comic" racial stereotype of the black servant in the 1940s (ignorant, easily misled, cowardly). Then I thought, how would I react if the servant were white? Abbot and Costello shared many of the same characteristics and were often shown in menial jobs, but obviously they were not accused of portraying racial stereoptypes.

There are some scenes where Jackson is trying to convince his employer and the pilot that there are zombies around, and they quickly dismiss his claim as imagination, despite his insistence. The lack of respect that they give him comes off as racist, or at least classist, but what if this really was how people treated their servants in the early 1940s? Is the movie racist or just true to life (not in that the lack of respect was deserved, but that in real life respect was often lacking, regardless)?

I'm not going to say that the movie wasn't racist either, because at the very least it perpetuated racial stereotypes, but I will say that after initially being tempted to slap a label of "racist" on the movie and leave it at that, I'll just leave that factor out of my considerations on whether I liked the movie.

PONTIFICATION ENDS HERE.

This is a comedy, not a horror, so be prepared to laugh. The most interesting and likable character in the film is the manservant Jeff Jackson, who not only has the best dialogue but, along with the maid Samantha, is one of the few in the cast capable of emoting much of anything. His antics save what would otherwise be a terminally boring movie. There is the requisite love story between either the pilot or the government man (I forget which, but they are pretty much interchangeable) and the doctor's niece. The zombies are creepy enough but mainly serve as stage props for Jackson's chuckle-inducing dialogue. There were parts of this movie that I really enjoyed and parts that dragged. I would say the overall movie is worth watching. In addition, not that I noticed, but apparently the musical score was good enough to get nominated for an Academy Award.