King of the Zombies (1941)

It only seems logical that, when exploring the comedies of the past, that we’d naturally be more inclined to start with the classics, the films that have been established as the masterpieces, especially since they tend to represent the absolute best the genre has to offer. However, there are some occasions when the best comedies are those that exist in near-obscurity, not being particularly well-known or beloved like some other films produced at a particular moment in time – but the joy in finding a hidden gem amongst these otherwise forgotten works is indescribable, and usually makes the effort to seek out films off the beaten path extremely worthwhile. One such film is King of the Zombies, in which director Jean Yarbrough (in conjunction with screenwriter Edmond Kelso) weaves together a wickedly funny and genuinely quite unsettling film that combines comedy and horror into a single compact narrative, from which he is able to make some bold statements, the kind that were not particularly common for this era in the history of Hollywood. Telling the story of a trio of Americans that find themselves stranded on an isolated island after their plane mysteriously crashes, and are forced right into the treacherous hands of a sinister doctor, who claims to be the only occupant of the island along with his group of servants, only for it to become clear that there are sinister forces lurking around this mansion, a lesson that our protagonists learn through firsthand experience. Bitingly funny and oddly unsettling in ways that many contemporary horror films would be lucky to even come close to achieving, which is quite a remarkable feat on its own for what is essentially just a B-movie produced quickly and cheaply, and all the more reason to appreciate this absolutely delightful film.

Many tend to view the concept of the B-movie industry as essentially being nothing more than a corner of Hollywood where all the alternative artists and their peculiar ideas were positioned, where they would grind out a quick film that rarely ran longer than 66 minutes, to be played at the tail-end of the main attraction, under the expectation that not as many people would stay behind to see these films. What many don’t account for is the level of creativity that went into the creation of these films – one of the few benefits of having very little help from the studio is that they provide as much guidance as they do interference, which is essentially next to nothing, outside of making it clear that these films have to follow certain standards to appease the censors, at whose mercy the entire industry was for several years. As a result, we saw many of the greatest filmmakers have their start making low-budget films, and the process normally involved some level of experimentation, whether with story or genre. King of the Zombies does both exceptionally well, especially when it comes to blending several different genres together in a way that feels almost effortless. Essentially, this film exists at the perfect intersection of dark comedy, horror and war drama (the latter being the big twist of the film, and perhaps the only unnecessary aspect of the story – but one could argue that they needed to ground this film in reality in some way, so a shoehorned resolution is at least passable), and unlike other genre-bending projects, it never comes across as being forced. Zombies are inherently funny, so unless you were someone with the level of ingenuity as Val Lewton, who could find unhinged terror in the concept on its own, a good zombie film is always going to have some degree of humour, something that has persisted over time, but which the industry still seems to struggle with.

King of the Zombies is outrageously funny, and a lot of this comes from how it views culture. Surprisingly, whether it was because the writer and director were more compassionate about the concept of representation, or because the story required it, this is one of the rare films produced in the early days of Hollywood by a major studio in which black characters were not merely stereotypes, which is quite an impressive achievement on its own, since Hollywood (much like the rest of the country) had a race problem at the time, so seeing characters that may have still veered towards being the comedic relief, but in a way that is actually thoughtful and has some degree of meaning. Make no mistake, King of the Zombies is still rife with stereotypes, and this kind of film could never be made today – but the main difference is, the presence of these over-the-top characters is actually valuable, since they are hilarious without being the laughingstocks that propel the film. The most impactful characters in this film are people of colour, and considering how steeped this film was in the concept of exploring voodoo and witchcraft as a whole, it’s interesting how they actively chose to pursue a more genuine approach to these ideas. Naturally, this is still a film that was produced very fast, so expecting nuance in how it portrays the cultures throughout the film is foolish, but it at least offers something we haven’t seen before (at least not at the time in which the film was made), and the fact that it managed to be so outrageously funny in the process is just another feather in its proverbial cap, and a further reason it is an unheralded masterpiece.

A film like King of the Zombies can only be as successful as the weakest actor in its cast, since as both a comedy and a horror, our response to the film depends almost entirely on the actors tasked with bringing it to life, since both are genres in which a reaction is meant to be provoked, and in very rare instances can either be successful without actors, especially with something as cheaply-made as a conventional B-movie. Fortunately, every actor in King of the Zombies is terrific – Dick Purcell and John Archer are the dashing heroes, the American everymen who arrive on this island and soon set forward to save the day and resolve all the tensions. The big surprise is actually that neither of them are the hero – in fact, it is the character of Jefferson Jackson who is the real protagonist of the story, and he is brought to life by Mantan Moreland, who is simply remarkable in the film. Moreland is one of the few popular black entertainers from this era that is still actively discussed, mercifully not being lost to the treachery of time by having his name and career forgotten. He was just too much of a presence for anyone to ignore, and even when playing a character that skirts around the edges of being a stereotype, he is still infusing the role with so much complexity and nuance. This is all delivered through his comedic abilities, which are never in doubt throughout this film, and the director clearly adores Moreland, because whenever he is on screen, all attention goes to him. Few actors have ever been able to be so magnetic and charismatic on screen, and had he been born later, there is very little doubt he’d be considered one of our greatest and most respected actors, rather than someone who had to peddle in low-budget fare to get a starring role – and even then, he is only fourth billed, despite being the star of this film. King of the Zombies works well because the cast is uniformly very strong, which is quite rare for this genre, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless.

In terms of both comedy and horror, it seems like contemporary filmmakers can take a cue from a film like King of the Zombies, especially if they intend to blend the two genres together. How a film this small can be both hilariously funny and deeply terrifying, despite the financial restraints imposed upon it is absolutely remarkable, and proves that some of the best works of genius are hidden out of view. It’s not a particularly complex film, but it has its moments of pure brilliance in which it feels like it is approaching something very special – and it often reaches that point, which makes its relative obscurity all the more inexplicable. There is nothing about this film that is traditionally complex or revolutionary, and it instead carries itself with the knowledge that it has a strong idea of what it wants to do and say, and it is interminable in aiming to achieve all those elements, as well as going in search of some deeper ideas in the process, which is an extraordinary way of making sure that what you are doing is going to be remembered long after the film has been released, even if it means it takes over half a century to actually reach the audience that will appreciate it. King of the Zombies may be one of the funniest films ever made, as well as one of the most terrifying, and that is not a hyperbolic statement – it is a genuine response to what is a deeply unheralded and masterful work of unhinged brilliance, carefully put together by a director and writer that understand all the details necessary to make an effective, compelling and captivating film. For that reason alone, more viewers should watch King of the Zombies, a film truly far ahead of its time.


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