Time for some more Halloween Zombie fun! This time out, a nostalgic “Lil’ Kitten Classic” look at 1941’s “King of the Zombies”. Yep…. I know it’s hard to believe, but yes…. there actually were zombies lurking about long before George Romero got his hands on them and sorta made them his very own. Mind you…. these “old skool” zombies weren’t the flesh munchin’, brain eatin’ ones we know today…. Mostly they just staggered about trying to strangle or bludgeon folks at the bequest of their evil Zombie Master. For those days… that was still pretty scary. (At least for tiny wee impressionable Catgirls….. Hehehehe!!)
What’s it all about? Well, our synopsis goes like this: “During World War II, a small plane, somewhere over the Caribbean, runs low on fuel and is blown off course by a storm. Guided by a faint radio signal, it crash-lands on a unknown island. The passenger, his manservant and the pilot all take refuge in a mansion they find owned by a doctor. The quick-witted yet easily-frightened manservant soon becomes convinced the mansion is haunted by zombies,and confirms this with some of the doctor’s hired help. Exploring, the three manage to stumble upon a secret voodoo ritual being conducted in the cellar, where the doctor is trying to use his evil sorcery to acquire war intelligence from a captured US military official. But the unexpected interruption causes the zombies to turn on their evil master……”
Voodoo… evil mad scientists… lost unexplored islands… and, yes, lots of honest-to-goodness ZOMBIES!! Yay! Lil’ Neko remembers lots of films like these that absolutely thrilled me way back when…. and if I remember it right, this Monogram classic pretty much captures the whole voodoo zombie thingee fairly well.
So…. Is my memory on track, or is your Favorite Catgirl just stuck in a nostalgic childhood haze? Guess I’ll have to give it a look once again just to make sure…..
Yep…. these old Black & White movies certainly do bring back those old feelings of my youth. This particular one isn’t perhaps the best I can remember, and for the most part was mostly an unofficial “remake” of the far superior Bob Hope hit “The Ghost Breakers” from 1940, only a year earlier, but it does represent pretty well the usual type of movie lil’ Miyuki used to watch every Saturday afternoon as regular as clockwork.
It’s not a particularly scary film…. more of a comedy piece really… with the typical shenanigans that tended to crop up in these sorts of “poverty row” productions. Our movie starts off with our three heroes flying blind somewhere over the Caribbean (without even a mention of the Bermuda Triangle… that’s just how old this one really is…), hopelessly lost and running low on fuel. Our intrepid pilot James “Mac” McCarthy (played by John Purcell) isn’t worried though he’s rough, tough, and hard boiled enough for all three of them put together…. and that’s a good thing too considering the predicament they’re in. Seems lots of planes have gone missing in this region lately, including the one carrying important Naval officer Admiral Wainwright on his way to the Panama Canal to oversee the US fortification efforts there. His passengers, Bill Summers (played by John Archer) and his trusty valet and comic relief, Jefferson “Jeff” Jackson (played by Mantan Moreland) are secretly interested in the admiral’s disappearance. At least Bill is…. he’s an American undercover agent, Jeff’s mostly just here to look after “Mr. Bill” and provide all the comic bits expected of an African-American actor in the 1940’s.
It doesn’t take long for them to pick up the faintest of radio transmissions (In German… although none of our heroes, including dapper secret agent Bill, seems to have a clue about that…) and end up following that signal smack dab into an uncharted island where one plane crash later they find themselves in the middle of a cemetery! Here’s where Jeff can really get going about how simple minded and superstitious he is… a stereotype right out of any of the Hal Roach “Little Rascals” shorts. Yep… seriously…. Jefferson could possibly be Buckwheat’s dad…. no doubt about it. He wakes up in a grave and has conniptions about it sooo bad you think he just might pass on for real. I suppose this passed for funny way back when… but it’s painfully dated today and likely to offend many in this current more elightened age. Unfortunately, that’s the meat and potatoes of “King of the Zombies” and the film just keeps ladling it on in heapin’ helpings as the plot progresses. Sigh…..
Somehow, they landed within about a hundred feet of a creepy looking plantation house…. lucky for them (or not so lucky as things turn out) that is the home of the Austrian refugee, Doctor Sangre (played by Henry Victor) who is more than happy to let them stay in his house for a couple of weeks till the regular supply boat comes by. No doubt the doc was just soooo darn glad our heroes didn’t manage to crash their plane right in his living room instead of the nearby cemetery! He’s our villain of course…. and even though the word “Nazi” is never…. ever… uttered anywhere in the film it’s pretty darn certain who he works for. Not surprising given the release of this film before Pearl Harbor and the American entry into WW2…. most films of the time skirted around the unpleasant idea that we might just be at war with Germany in a short time… better to just skip such things and let the audience draw their own conclusions.
Our dull hero Bill takes considerable time to get up to speed… but not surprisingly Jeff soon finds himself up to his eyebrows in “haints” and “zombies”… or as he calls em’ “dead folk what don’t know they is dead” with all the usual comic hi-jinx that suggest themselves. Even letting his boss know all about Dr. Sangre’s mob of undead henchman gets him nowhere. Nobody believes him….
Throw in some other suspicious types like Dr. Sangre’s Head of Household, Momba (played by Leigh Whipper), old Tahama the witch-woman who acts as cook (played by Madame Sul-Te-Wan), and his catatonic wife Alyce (played by Patricia Stacey) who looks so damn “zombified” all the time even Bill should be asking himself, “WTF?” and you have to ask how he ever got a job as a “special agent”.
The Zombies pop up again and again…. naturally never when agent Bill is around to see them, of course, and do what it is Zombies did back then. Mostly shamble around looking pretty stoned in their disheveled and dirty looking clothes and threaten to strangle poor Jefferson whenever he’s alone. They follow all those old Voodoo rules for Zombies…. they are silent, mindless automatons, who weirdly enough, have to eat. Even lil’ Miyuki found that a bit puzzling way back then and grown up me certainly had to wonder about it some more. Oh…. and they should never… ever… eat any salt. Samantha the maid explains that if they do, they finally figure out that they are really dead after all and then “shrivel all up somethin’ awful”. Yep… that can’t be good, I guess it violates their warranty or something…..
Our last character, pretty Barbara (played by Joan Woodbury), Alyce’s daughter by an earlier marriage, shows up and naturally thick headed Bill comes to believe it’s she…. not our creepy “Austrian” doctor… who’s behind all the crazy stuff. Ummmm… yeah. That’ll score him some real points in the romance department. Anyway… eventually we find out that Admiral Wainwright is hidden away in the cellar being worked on by Voodoo Queen Tahama to learn all his important secrets so Sangre can radio them to his German speakin’ bosses. Poor Mac gets whupped by the Zombies and “killed”… only to join the zombie mob. This means our heroes are doomed… right?
Nawww….. In all these films the zombies eventually run amok and destroy their evil master, and that’s basically what happens here fight at the climax. Things have to move quickly… our entire lil’ film only runs a scant 67 minutes after all… and so after wasting all this time on goofy gags and silly improbable plot twists, Mac has a moment of clarity during the big Voodoo Ritual scene… recognizes his buddies and leads our Zombie horde to finish off the evil doctor, save Barbara from his clutches and even somehow survive several point blank gunshot wounds to make a full recovery. (Apparently he really was rough, tough, and hard boiled after all!!) Ahh…. all ends well.
So what’s the verdict? Well… this one turns out to be another of those films colored by my youthful zeal and who’s memory doesn’t exactly match the reality of it’s present day movie watchin’ experience. That, or despite Carolyn’s assertions of my continued “youthful whimsy”, it’s possible I’ve simply grown up and become a “big girl” after all. Still… if you have kids of your own… and they like their entertainment a bit on the spooky side, this one might just be a harmless lil’ look back at the way things used to be. It’s simple… unpretentious… and that’s a refreshing thing in these sometimes jaded times. Neko gives this one 2 “Meows” out of 5…. mostly on the whole nostalgic memories that it has for me, saving it from a fate of utter obscurity.
There’s even a nifty vintage Trailer! Yay!!