A Quickie on a Quickie: KING OF THE ZOMBIES (Monogram 1941)

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KING OF THE ZOMBIES is a 1941 Monogram horror quickie that does not star Bela Lugosi. Apparently, the great Hungarian actor was too busy at the time. I don’t see how, it’s not like he was making A-list epics that year.  Looking at his 1941 output, Lugosi starred in the studio’s THE INVISIBLE GHOST, SPOOKS RUN WILD with the East Side Kids, and had small roles in Universal’s THE BLACK CAT and THE WOLF MAN . That’s what, about 4-5 weeks worth of work? Anyway, the part of zombie master Dr. Sangre was taken by Henry Victor, best known as strongman Hercules in Tod Browning’s FREAKS.

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What KING OF THE ZOMBIES does have is black comic actor Mantan Moreland . In fact, I’m pretty sure if it wasn’t for Mantan, this film would’ve been long forgotten. I know many people today find his pop-eyed, mangled English, “feets do yo stuff” scairdy-cat schtick offensive and stereotypical. But it’s that very schtick that carries the film and rescues it from the abyss of obscurity. Besides, he’s treated more as an equal among his white cohorts, regardless of being called the nominal hero’s “valet”.

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The movie itself will scare nobody, though it does have a few atmospheric scenes courtesy of director Jean Yarbrough . It’s basically an “old, dark house” story with zombies, but the zombies aren’t very creepy, and the voodoo ritual scene is pretty blah. Madam Sul-Te-Wan tries to give it some oomph as voodoo priestess Tahama, but Henry Victor is no Bela Lugosi as Dr. Sangre, who turns out to be a mere Nazi spy. Marguerite Whitten has some good banter with Mantan as Sangre’s housekeeper Samantha; the two would work well together in several films. The “good guys” include John Archer, Joan Woodbury , and Dick Purcell (the screen’s first Captain America!), all of whom are much blander and less interesting than Mantan.

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So if your interested in seeing a spooky zombie movie, you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re looking for comedy, watch KING OF THE ZOMBIES and let the underrated Mantan Moreland entertain you with his brand of buffoonery. He was a very funny dude who starred in his own series of independent “all-black cast” movies, and saved many a low-budget studio effort with his comic support (especially those late 40’s Monogram/Charlie Chan efforts). He worked steady in films for years, transcending his stereotyped roles, and deserves to be remembered for his comedic talents.

Halloween Havoc!: BLACK MOON (Columbia 1934)

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I thought I’d seen, or at least heard of, all the horror films made during the 1930’s. I was wrong. BLACK MOON was new to me when I viewed it recently as part of TCM’S Summer Under the Stars salute to KING KONG’s  main squeeze, Fay Wray. It’s a voodoo tale also starring square-jawed Jack Holt and Pre-Code favorite Dorothy Burgess . The director is Roy William Neill, who would later work with genre giants Karloff (THE BLACK ROOM), Lugosi and Chaney (FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN), and helm eleven of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone.

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The film open with the pounding of jungle drums, and we see Nita Lane (Burgess) is the one pounding them in her luxurious home. Nita grew up on the Caribbean isle of San Christopher, where her parents were murdered during a native uprising. Hubby Stephen (Holt) is against Nita returning to the island, but can’t dissuade her, so he asks his secretary Gail (Wray) to accompany his wife and young daughter Nancy (Cora Sue Collins).

Nita is visited by a man named Macklin (Lumsden Hare), sent by Nita’s Uncle Raymond to keep his niece away from San Christopher. The blood sacrifices have returned to the island, and Nita is warned to steer clear. “You can’t stop me”, is her reply, “I’ll come and go when and where I please”. Unable to reason with her, Macklin goes to Stephen’s office, and has a knife thrown in his back by a native assassin for his troubles. Meanwhile, Nita hears the steady beating of the voodoo drums in her head.

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Nita is treated like royalty by the natives upon her return to San Christopher. Uncle Raymond tries to persuade her to leave, but there’s no talking to her. Gail is worried about Nita’s bizarre behavior, and wires Stephen to come to the island. The telegrapher is found hanging, and soon Nancy’s nurse is found dead. Nita replaces the nurse with her  former nanny Ruva (Madame Sul-Te-Wan), and becomes more ominous looking by the minute.

Stephen charters a schooner from ‘Lunch’ McLaren (Clarence Muse), who fears his girlfriend is about to be sacrificed by the voodoo cult. The two men sneak into the jungle and observe the weird ceremony, with frenzied drumming and feverish dancing… and Nita presiding over it as the White Priestess! The High Priest is about to chop off ‘Lunch’s’ girls head when Stephen shoots him. The two run away in fear, not witnessing Nita finish the bloody job!

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Uncle Raymond tells Stephen the truth about Nita- after her parents were killed, she was watched over by Ruva, and initiated into the voodoo cult as their priestess, taking part in their murderous sacrificing rituals. Raymond sent her away when he found out, and thought being married and having a child had cured her of her bloodlust. Later, Nancy has a nightmare and Stephen gives her some water, not knowing it’s been loaded with a voodoo drug by Nita, meant for him. The child survives, but soon the natives trap Stephen and company in the estate. They manage to escape, and now the cult demands retribution in the form of a new sacrifice… Nita’s own daughter Nancy!

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Dorothy Burgess excels in the role of Nita, with her ominous looks and wild-eyed dancing. Neill and cinematographer Joseph August bring a great sense of dread to the proceedings, and the shadowy camerawork is film noirish in its execution (pardon the pun). BLACK MOON isn’t particularly scary, but has enough good moments to qualify as horror. It’s an obscure title that’s rarely seen today, and is worth going out of your way to find, especially for Golden Age horror completests.