Finally a film from the 1940s! King of the Zombies tells the story of an unfortunate plane carrying Bill Summers (John Archer, Rodeo) and his manservant Jeff (Mantan Moreland, The Jade Mask) that has been blown off course by a storm. Luckily they follow a faint radio signal to a small Caribbean island. On the island they meet the eccentric Doctor Sangre, played by Henry Victor (Freaks, The Mummy) who lives on the island with his wife, who has seemingly had some sort of nervous breakdown and walks around in a trance, and her niece who clearly suspects the doctor of causing her Aunt’s condition. The film follows Summers and Jeff along with the pilot, James “Mac” McCarthy (Dick Purcell, Captain America – the original 1944 version) as they realise something is very wrong on the island only to discover that their only means of reaching the outside world – the plane’s radio – has been stolen. From the flirtatious kitchen maid we learn that the doctors uses zombies as servants (although for exactly what I’m not sure) which are reanimated corpses from voodoo magic. The maid, cook and butler seem completely nonplussed by the use of zombies, even preparing dinner to serve to them.
There is a lot of racial prejudice in the film that watching in today’s time is very uncomfortable. For example, when pouring brandy for his visitors when Jeff (the black manservant) reaches for a glass it is quickly removed. Whilst this is an obvious act there is a far more pervasive undercurrent of white supremacy running throughout the film which is often seen in other films, such as the startlingly similar White Zombie. Indeed, Jeff’s entire character would probably not be seen in modern films. Having mentioned the similarity to White Zombie, it is impossible not to compare Victor’s Dr Sangre to Lugosi’s Legendre nearly a decade before, indeed the part was originally written for Bela Lugosi. Unfortunately with this comparison Sangre appears a pale imitation, lacking the dramatic flair and overwhelming presence of Lugosi.
In my mind there are too many plot lines in King of the Zombies meaning that nothing really stands out. For example, the type of zombies in King of the Zombies is very confused. At first it is a simple voodoo-reanimated-corpse that slowly shuffles around and suddenly appears at the sound of a clap, however, as the film progresses the idea of hypnotism gets bandied about. It transpires that Dr Sangre has hypnotised his wife which explains her zombie-like state although she herself isn’t a zombie. The addition of the hypnosis storyline really confuses the voodoo aspect (to me at least). There is also an unspoken Nazi theme running through the film, Dr Sangre has a German accent and speaks German on his hidden radio, although again this is never fully explored which is a shame, possibly as it would make marketing and distributing the film much harder.
An interesting but slightly confused film to watch, at slightly over an hour long (67 minutes to be exact) King of the Zombies is a good watch for when you are in the mood to watch something short but don’t want all the baggage that comes along with a series.