Although I’m sure this will be published on Sunday, I just got back from a double feature of the 1941 film King of the Zombies and the classic George A. Romero zombie movie Night of the Living Dead. Orlando, Florida is really a one horse town: we only have one independent movie theater (The Enzian) and every October they play classic horror films at midnight each Saturday night. Last year they featured The Exorcist, From Dusk Till Dawn, Night of the Living Dead (which I went to last year also), and Cannibal Holocaust. This year they’re playing Re-Animator, City of the Living Dead, Child’s Play, and tonight’s double feature. There’s something special about midnight movies, especially if they’re cult flicks like tonight’s selections. Both films were screened on original 16mm prints, which is fantastic since the King of the Zombies print is almost 70 years old.
The evening began with King of the Zombies, a World War II era low-budget horror flick featuring Dick Purcell, Joan Woodbury, Henry Victor, and the notorious African American actor Mantan Moreland. Earlier this evening I reviewed the 1966 zombie film The Plague of the Zombies; a film I criticized for its subtle racism. After watching King of the Zombies I still hold my position that The Plague of the Zombies is a bit racist, yet in comparison to Jean Yarbrough’s voodoo charged ghoul film, The Plague of the Zombies is quite progressive. King of the Zombies is blatantly racist, treating the black cast a little better than slaves. Jeff (played by Mantan Moreland) embodies all the negative traits white America associated with African Americans prior to the 1960s. I’m not suggesting these deeply held prejudices have vanished from our society, but I am merely stating that strides have been made from the time King of the Zombies hit theaters. It was one step above Al Jolston painting his face black.
King of the Zombies is about a group of three men heading for the Bahamas that crash land on a remote Caribbean island. The island is inhabited by a group of indigenous natives, controlled by the mysterious Dr. Sangre (Victor). Caught in a fierce storm the trio hone in on a radio signal and crash directly into a graveyard, where Moreland’s overtly racist and passively self deprecating remarks begin in earnest. Finding their way to Sangre’s estate, the three are welcome as guests – or rather the two white men are welcomed while Jeff is relegated to reside in the kitchen. Aside from Sangre’s ambiguous research, it turns out he’s the leader of a voodoo cult, with a group of the locals as his followers and assistants. Sangre has a small gang of zombies at his disposal and they are used both for his malicious desires and the film’s tragically comedic moments.
As Jeff’s employers (in reality his masters) unravel the mystery associated with Sangre’s secluded island, Jeff engages in a long line of not so subtle racist moments, with his character doing everything it can to push back any struggle for equality and justice for minorities. Within the first ten minutes of the film Dr. Sangre treats Jeff as a second class citizen, hushing him in front of his companions. This kind of behavior is obviously not condoned nowadays, but for some reason it’s acceptable in the world of Yarbrough’s zombie film. Such Mooreland lines like, “Zombies? What’s dem?” and, “This being a zombie is sure a drawback,” don’t do anything to help the African American plight of the time.
Of course the only thing worse than being a black man in King of the Zombies is being a black woman. Marguerite Whitten plays Sangre’s head maid, Samantha: a young black woman from Alabama. In addition to her lowly status in Sangre’s eyes, she’s subject to chauvinistic statements and treatment by Jeff. Samantha occupies the lowest rung on the totem pole in the film, but even though she’s relegated to the lowest status in the film she does manage to make Jeff look pretty stupid a few times, without having to berate their race. The other women in the film, Alyce Sangre (Patricia Stacey) and Barbara Winslow (Joan Woodbury) occupy a status just barely above Jeff’s. Their desires are thwarted by Dr. Sangre, with his wife Alyce being a zombie and his niece Barbara unwillingly assisting Sangre in his vague experiments to help his wife’s condition. For some reason Sangre keeps his wife as a zombie but drafts Barbara to help him change her back. This didn’t make much sense since Sangre is the head voodoo priest, yet he needs the help of a medical assistant to undo his previous work. Maybe I just don’t know that much about voodoo, but I have a sinking suspicion writer Edmond Kelso didn’t either.
The film wasn’t very deep and was pretty offensive. At times I didn’t know whether to laugh of feel disgusted at the portrayal of both African Americans and women. The only subtext I could find involves America’s then upcoming war with Nazi Germany. The radio signal that lures the three protagonists to the island in the first place is also used by Sangre in the middle of the film, when he contacts an unknown party and speaks German. Is Dr. Sangre a Nazi, creating an army of Caribbean zombies to attack America? Are the filmmakers suggesting that the Nazi’s are just as bad as residents of the various Caribbean island and Hitler’s form of white superiority and quest for world domination is on par with voodoo? In turn wouldn’t that mean African Americans – since their skin is the same color – are a threat to America also? It’s entirely possible I’m reading too far in King of the Zombies, since it’s a horribly inane film, made to earn a quick buck from an American audience looking for a quick thrill and an escape from the maladies of an economically damaged America about to enter the Second World War. Maybe the motivations behind portraying Caribbean residents and African Americans as secondary citizens, who are untrustworthy, is nothing more than an attempt to bolster the spirits of a downtrodden American citizenry. Then again, the sentiments held by many white Americans are spelled out clearly in King of the Zombies: black people are indeed secondary citizens, women are secondary to men, and foreigners that don’t subscribe to America’s brand of Western ideology are sketchy and their motivations dubious.
The film only runs about 70 minutes and is actually entertaining, even with all it’s racism and its cultural superiority complex. It reminds me of a simpler time; a time I never knew because my parents weren’t even alive yet; a time that was never really that simple but seems simple because of our desire for pure forms of nostalgia and the lens we view it through. These times were wrought with starvation, usurpation of people’s civil liberties, racial injustice, inhumane treatment by employers and retaliation for worker organization by our own military to name a few. It was also a time of dissent by a good deal of Americans, although this is generally absent in a quick survey of American history. I appolgize if my writing here is coming across as pedantic or preachy, it’s just a film like King of the Zombies exhibits all the issues of the first half of the 20th century that are many times glossed over when we look at our past, trying to see only the positives (which there are many) of these times.
In regards to King of the Zombie’s status as a zombie film, it’s not anything too special. I mentioned before that it’s entertaining and I can’t take that away from the film, but it’s hard to watch these voodoo fueled zombie films after the strides taken with the genre: first by Romero and then by directors like Fulci, Dan O’Bannon, and many others. The shift from voodoo to a biological or unexplained cause to zombie outbreaks is far more interesting than the early depictions of zombies. Films like Romero or Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead or the Kirkman helmed comic book series The Walking Dead focus less on the zombies and more on the people. These stories are far more interesting to me than a colonial-like white presence exploiting the indigenous population and using voodoo for materialistic ends. These early films are not depicting zombie outbreaks in a post-apocalyptic fashion, which shows how humanity and the rules of a civilized society crumble when faced with an enemy like the living dead. Instead they are using cultural myths as an exploitation tool, furthering the ideas presented by Edward Said in his book Orientalism. By depicting these cultures as exotic and mysterious, it removes our connection to them in terms of sharing a single world and places an alien-like brand on them. They aren’t humans sharing the same world, but subjects in a foreign locale – entertainment instead of individuals living in a rich culture.
Here is the trailer for King of the Zombies
Next up is Night of the Living Dead. I already wrote a review of this film a while back but I’m going to explore a few things I noticed tonight. Although Barbara (Judith O’Dea) is not portrayed as a strong female character, both Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman) and Judy (Judith Ridley) exhibit strength. Helen is in a loveless marriage, a study of the nuclear family but gone wrong (maybe this is an analogous theme for the film since the zombie outbreak is associated with radiation from a destroyed space probe), and she has no problems calling her overbearing husband Harry out: “We might not like living together but we don’t have to die together.” Judy’s more subservient to her boyfriend Tom, yet unlike Barbara, who sits catatonic on the couch for the majority of the film, Judy exerts her independence at times, able to work on various projects and not falling into the “hysterical woman” stereotype. What’s so interesting to me about Barbara is she fits the profile of the “hysterical woman” described by Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality. In the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, Barbara is a much stronger character, changing the attitude the audience has towards the character. Instead of sitting catatonic on the couch, this incarnation of Barbara takes action, eventually being the only character left alive by the end of the film (sorry to spoil it for you). Personally I like Patricia Tallman’s portrayal of Barbara in the remake directed by Tom Savini and written by Romero.
The print screened was excellent, although there were a few times they had to stop it due to the sound slowing down to a creepy drone. I’ve seen the film more times than I care to admit and it was neat to have an unintentional drone accompanying the opening conflict in the cemetery. The print was quite for being 42 years old and the grain and imperfections added to the mystique of a midnight movie double feature. The theater was only half filled, which was suprising since Night of the Living Dead is a landmark in horror cinema. Then again, being able to find a copy on DVD at your neighborhood Walgreens for $1.99 or watching it for free online probably deterred many would-be attendees.
In my last post I wrote a great deal about the other themes in Night of the Living Dead and I feel reiterating them again is a waste of time (not to mention I’m quite tired). Here’s a link to my original post from a while back:
Here is the trailer