King of the Zombies is a 1941 American horror comedy film directed by Jean Yarbrough (The Devil Bat; She-Wolf of London; House of Horrors) from a screenplay by Edmond Kelso. It was produced by Monogram Pictures.
The role of Doctor Miklos Sangre was intended for Bela Lugosi. When he became unavailable, negotiations ensued to obtain Peter Lorre for the part, but a deal could not be reached. Veteran character actor Henry Victor was signed just prior to the date of filming.
In the press kit for this film, Monogram advised exhibitors to sell “it along the same lines as Paramount’s The Ghost Breakers (1940).”
Two years later, in 1943, the film was followed by a sequel, of sorts, called Revenge of the Zombies which included two of the original cast members. Mantan Moreland reprised his role as Jeff.
During World War II, a Capelis XC-12 plane somewhere over the Caribbean runs low on fuel and is blown off course by a storm. Guided by a faint radio signal, they crash-land on an island. The passenger, his manservant and the pilot take refuge in a mansion owned by a doctor.
Quick-witted yet easily frightened valet (Mantan Moreland) soon becomes convinced the mansion is haunted by zombies, and confirms this with some of the doctor’s hired help.
Exploring, the three stumble upon a voodoo ritual being conducted in the cellar, where the doctor, who is in reality a foreign spy, is trying to acquire war intelligence from a captured US Admiral whose plane had crashed in a similar fashion on the island. But the interruption causes the zombies to turn on their master…
“In what would otherwise be a rather mediocre movie, the hilarious performance of Mantan Moreland is masterful to say the least. It’s interesting to see that, even back in the forties, black people were the voice of reason in horror movies. White people never listen, and are therefore doomed.” Nigel Honeybone, HorrorNews.net
“… utterly absurd and delightful” Peter Dendle, The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia
“Jeff’s role is a lot like that played by Shaggy some 30 years later in Scooby Doo, Where Are You? – with the important distinction that we are invited to believe that Jeff’s cowardice somehow follows naturally and inevitably from him being black. Above and beyond all else, it’s this that makes watching King of the Zombies such an uncomfortable experience.” 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting
Cast and characters:
- Dick Purcell as James “Mac” McCarthy
- Joan Woodbury as Barbara Winslow
- Mantan Moreland as valet Jefferson “Jeff” Jackson
- Henry Victor as Doctor Miklos Sangre
- John Archer as Bill Summers
- Patricia Stacey as Alyce Sangre
- Guy Usher as Admiral Arthur Wainwright
- Marguerite Whitten as Samantha, the Maid
- Leigh Whipper as Momba, the Butler
- Madame Sul-Te-Wan as Tahama, the Cook and High Priestess
- James Davis as Lazarus, a Zombie
- Laurence Criner as Doctor Couillie
Whole film [public domain]: