Anyone who has seen mostly post-Romero zombie flicks in which zombies are flesh-eating ghouls may be a little surprised that before Night of the Living Dead (), movie zombies were usually depicted as obedient mindless slaves created by voodoo rituals, & not flesh-eaters.
After Romero, the concept of Zombie became conflated with Ghoul, & it's significant that Romero never used the word "zombie" in the film that redefined the term. The horror was not necessarily the zombies themselves so much as it was the possibility of becoming one.
Wavering between comedy & horror, King of the Zombies (1941) employs a number of African American actors whose level of performance is well above that of the honkies in the cast.
A plane makes a forced landing on a Carribean island. The three men on board are the pilot, the good American spy, & his black valet Jeff. It seems likely that the stars are supposed to be John Archer as Bill the good spy & Dick Purcell as Mac the pilot, with the leading lady purportedly Joan Woodbury as Barbara, plus Henry Victor as the villainous Dr. Sangre (i.e., Dr. Blood).
But very soon the show is completely ruled by its subsidiary "comic relief" cast, headed up by Mantan Moreland as Jeff, Mr. Bill's valet.
Though he starts out as a "feets don't fail me now" stereotype of the bug-eyed frightened negro, he gets so much screen time that he is able to invest the role with depth & heroism as well as comedy.
He gets turned into the only zombie who doesn't lose loquacity, & he is sufficiently strongwilled to overcome zombification & to consistently make fun of everything that is happening.
Such roles deserve more respect, or at least given individual assessment rather than lumped together as invariably offensive to modern racial & sociopolitical awareness.
In slave days there was a tradition among plantation blacks of telling stories of "Slave John" who at first glance seemed like a fool, but in fact was a hell of a lot smarter than the master.
So too the humor of Vaudevillians like Mantan Moreland or Eddie "Rochester" Anderson may too often be defined as or reduced to "servants of whites," but look closely at their performances & they bring surprising dignity to these roles, even when the purpose is jest.
Thus Mantan as Jeff is the only good-guy who sees clearly what is happening right from the start. He undermines the status quo of Hollywood racism, which may have written his role as a "funny cowardly black man" but as performed ends up being pretty damned brave in a wry fashion, the only character samrt enough to have a real grasp of the absuridity of all things.
In an interview late in his life, Mantan admitted that his routines "were not always funny to my own people" & we can lament that in those days such talent required stereoptype to be profitably employed.
Even so, Mantan is wonderful, & if King of the Zombies had nothing else admirable, it would be worth the time spent on it in order to see one of the great comics from the golden age of Vaudeville.
Mantan was a big star in his day & has the lead in a number of short comedies of the 1940s, distributed predominantly to black neighborhoods in America.
Those films are today regarded as so politically incorrect they haven't had the modern revivals they deserve, so he's best known from Charlie Chan movies in which he plays the detective's chauffeur. His last role was in Watermelon Man (1970) starring Godfrey Cambridge.
So too the leading lady is not the whitebread love-interest for Mr. Bill, but is instead Marguerite Whitten as Samantha, the kitchen maid from Alabama, who matter-of-factly introduces Jeff to a couple of huge black zombies, then denies they exist when Jeff tries to get Mr. Bill involved.
Dr. Sangre the uninteresting villain is completely upstaged by Madame Sul-Te-Wan as Tahama the voodoo priestess.
Madame Sul-Te-Wan is historically one of the most important African American actresses. She was discovered by D. W. Griffith for Birth of a Nation (1915) & had before then been "washerwoman to the stars.
If you're only willing to see her in roles that are not demeaning to blacks, you'll have to forego seeing her at all, as she's just about always a maid or a witch or a slave or a jungle tribeswoman. Yet she managed always to be awfully cool during the entirety of her long career, despite the limitations imposed on black performers.
Dr. Sangre creates zombies by means of hypnotism & Tahama makes them by means of voodoo. Dr. Sangre finds that the scientific & religious combine well for creating zombies more quickly, & uses the combined techniques to get military secrets from a captive admiral (Guy Usher) & from Bill the Spy.
Though Germany is never mentioned, Sangre speaks German, so he's a nazi spy. His empire of evil is on an obscure zombie island in the middle of nowhere because, apparently, such is the ideal place to find out American military secrets.
White Zombie (1932) & Revolt of the Zombies (1936)
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl