Voodoo

King Of The Zombies (1941)

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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.

Rating: 3/5

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White Zombie (1932)

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White Zombie is set on the Caribbean island of Haiti and follows a young couple, Madeline Short and Neil Parker, played by Madge Bellamy (The Iron Horse) and John Harron (Silk Stockings) respectively who are visiting Charles Beaumont, a friend of Madeline. The film begins with the lovebirds arriving during a traditional Voodoo funeral and several passers-by, an ominous sign of what it to follow from which the coachman flees at a breakneck speed and drops the two at Beaumont’s plantation. Here we meet Beaumont, played by Robert Frazer (The Vampire Bat) with a clear crush on the doe-eyed Madeline. We are also introduced to the local (Christian) priest, Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn, The Great Ziegfeld) who conducts the wedding ceremony between Madeline and Neil.

Unfortunately for the newlyweds, Beaumont, desperate to have Madeline for his own, approaches Bela Lugosi’s character, ‘Murder’ Legendre, a voodoo master who possesses a crew of zombies, including the voodoo priest he learnt the dark art from and someone sent to execute him. Legendre and Beaumont ‘kill’ Madeline and turn her into a zombie, sending Neil into a drunken spiral of despair through which he is haunted by the spirit of his lost love. Wracked by grief, he goes to see Dr Bruner who explains his theory about the use of drugs to induce a zombie-like state in a victim and how he suspects this has happened to Madeline. The two then go on a mission to rescue Madeline from Legendre, who has since turned on the poor Beaumont.

White Zombie has all the hallmarks of a good 1930s horror film, a wide eyed damsel in distress, a strong hero and his side kick and a despicable villain. The main star of the film is Lugosi’s eyebrows, which has a lot of airtime including several close-ups, they resemble something of a handlebar moustache stuck other the top of his nose. They are so amazing, that I am putting the first screen shot in a review of them:

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Understandably the sound and picture quality are poor compared to modern films and some of the scenes skip but that is only to be expected for a film that is over 80 year’s old. Similarly, a film with such blatant racism would not get made nowadays, but in from 1915-1934 Haiti was occupied by the US and an enforced labour regime was employed so it may be somewhat representative of the time the film was made. The scenery was borrowed from other horror films being filmed at the same studio so there is a lack of cohesion on the scenery that is confusing at times.

White Zombie is an interesting, little (at just over an hour long) film with a clear story. I like the fact that, unlike a lot of modern films, the film has a resolution (however predictable) and doesn’t leave an obvious opening for a sequel (e.g. Insidious). It is also a slightly different take on the zombie canon, from the common risen dead or the more recent disease infection. Whilst not scary, I would recommend White Zombie to all horror fans.

Rating: 4/5

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Fun Fact: Bellamy retired from screen after a scandal in the early 40s in which she shot at her then partner, Albert Stanwood Murphy and filed for divorce, despite never being legally married.