King Of The Zombies

FEBRUARY 1, 2008


“If there’s one thing that I don’t want to be twice, zombies is both of them.”

So says Jeff, the delightfully stereotypical black guy who is a servant to the “hero” of King Of The Zombies. Throughout the film he pretty much does everything you’d expect an African American character to do in a film from the era, and damned if it doesn’t get a little offensive at times. Especially since I’m pretty sure a lot of it is supposed to be played for laughs - when he’s not making bug eyed faces, he’s just hamming it up for no apparent reason.

The concept of the film is fine, some folks crash on an island and discover that the inhabitants are a bit weird (would make a great TV show!). However, I could tell from the plane crash that this one was gone be a lot of talk and no action. In the cheesiest ‘crash’ scene ever, the guys in the plane just suddenly scream (half-assed) and then sort of lean sideways in their seats (also half-assed). Then there’s a fade, and we see everyone was tossed from the plane in the most gentle manner possible (not even a scratch) but the plane looks like it was cut in half. Obviously they didn’t have CG and all that back in the day, but it seems like they weren’t even trying to sell the idea of the crash. So it’s not much of a surprise that a good chunk of the next hour is just folks talking about the island, talking about zombies, talking about earrings... It doesn't help that the bad guy is a boring lout (the role was intended for Lugosi - who would have at least been a bit more entertaining).

Plus, the humor never works once in the film, which is a problem when the Jeff character is constantly trying to be funny. The shtick may have worked back then for bigoted white people, but now it’s just sort of offensive all around. It doesn’t help that he seems to be the only guy in the movie with half a brain, and he is constantly dismissed by his two alleged friends (they don’t even care when he’s not given a drink or a decent bed). I know it was how things were, but it’s still a major distraction – when I watch a budget pack horror movie, I want to be focusing on the boring and stupid plot, not racial stereotypes!

In fact, the only actual ‘horror’ in the film comes at the end, during the typical voodoo dance/fire/guys in masks scene from a million other movies of its type (I had a very strong West Of Zanzibar flashback). The zombies are told to attack the hero, but he says “no, attack the bad guy” (not an exact quote) and pretty much immediately, they do. It’s a nice little scene. And it’s preceded by a hilarious bit where Jeff is looking for a hidden entrance to the voodoo room. “How did I get in there?” he ponders, and leans against the wall. Then, all of a sudden, the film speed is cranked up, and Jeff does this odd sort of stop-motion looking thing as he accidentally discovers the way inside. It’s fucking hilarious.

There’s also this “suspense” scene, as the hero looks for his friend and is watched by one of the zombies. Unfortunately, in order for the scene to work as filmed, you have to assume the hero is retarded, or blind:

He doesn’t see the guy on the right side of the image. Then he walks around the bend and-

-still doesn’t see him. Jesus.

So I guess if you are interested in seeing an early horror/comedy that demonstrates how African Americans were portrayed in films of the era, by all means check this out. Otherwise, unless you’re a budget pack completist, there’s very little to recommend here.

What say you?


  1. This is a weird one. Yes, it has the offensive racial stereotypes played for comedy, and the way Jeff is treated is pretty shocking and reprehensible to a modern viewer--however, at the same time, Jeff is obviously the "hero" of the piece, the only one who knows what's going on, while his white bosses are pretty much clueless. And even though Mantan Moreland is not top-billed, it's clear he's the star, his comedy is the main draw.

    I'm not claiming it's subversively empowering or anything, but it does have a kind of odd subtext in that.

    And Moreland does have a couple of funny lines.

    As to the FX (the plane crash), this is a poverty-row production from the era, that they probably threw together in a week or so, so I didn't mind that so much, just took it as par for the course.

  2. And I should mention that the star, Mantan Moreland, also appeared in the cult classic Spider Baby, along with Lon Chaney Jr. and Sid Haig. Which would be a good one to review, if you haven't already.

    More info on Mantan.


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