Directed by Jean Yarbrough [Other horror films: The Devil Bat (1940), House of Horrors (1946), She-Wolf of London (1946), The Brute Man (1946), The Creeper (1948), Master Minds (1949), Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967)]
For a low-budget early zombie comedy, I think King of the Zombies has a lot of charm. It’s definitely flawed, it’s definitely cheap, and it’s certainly racist concerning Mantan Moreland’s character, but it still possesses charm, and after seeing it three times at least, that’s consistently accurate, as far as I’m concerned.
When watching the film, you can tell by the rather limited sets and general quality that the film didn’t have the highest budget, but I don’t think it’s as bad as some other films from around the same time period, and at the same time, the somewhat scratchy version we have now feels somewhat more enjoyable because of it.
The plot’s not too dissimilar from other horror films, what with a mystery in a mansion, various different parties sneaking around (though to be fair, we pretty much know from the beginning who the truly bad individual here is), and secret passageways, only they threw in zombies of the voodoo variety, hypnotism, and hit-and-miss comedy.
Personally, I find a fair amount of Moreland’s lines amusing, perhaps the one that tickled me the most being about how his feet ‘done took root.’ The ending line (“If there’s anything I wouldn’t want to be twice, a zombie’s both of them”) always got me also, but it’s obvious that Moreland’s jittery persona is rife with racist undertones (perhaps overtones), so it’s somewhat a challenge to watch from today’s perspective. Still, Moreland’s performance is pretty solid, and while occasionally his antics are a bit over-the-top, he’s more mellow than others around the same time (such as Willie Best’s character from The Monster Walks).
Other actors worth mentioning include Henry Victor, who played a competent, yet somewhat uninspired, antagonist, John Archer, who played a more action-orientated protagonist, and the main character, Dick Purcell (though I’d argue that Archer’s character was more likable). Joan Woodbury (who was previously in The Rogues’ Tavern) was decent, though I didn’t think the story gave her that much to do. Marguerite Whitten was pretty good as a sassy cook, playing well off Moreland, and Leigh Whipper definitely had a pretty imposing presence, though it’s rarely used to great effect.
As it is, King of the Zombies clocks in at just about an hour and eight minutes, so if it’s not your cup of tea, at least you’re not losing that much time. That said, I’ve consistently had a solid amount of fun with it, though I think I’ve somewhat cooled on it with this most recent re-watch, because while I do think it’s above average, I don’t think it’s much more than that. Worth a look if one is into early zombie flicks, if only to see how far they’ve come.