Views & Reviews From Writer Steve Miller
Formerly Reviews and Stuff at Rotten Tomatoes, 2005 - 2009.

Currently Showing at Cinema Steve

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Black Sidekick Smarter Than Hero

King of the Zombies (1941)

Starring: Dick Purcell, Mantan Moreland, John Archer, Joan Woodbury and Henry Victor
Director: Jean Yarbrough
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Mac (Purcell), Bill (Archer), and Jeff (Moreland) are forced to land on a mysterious island after their plane runs low on fuel. Here, they find a mysterious family who aren't at all what they seem... and who are the center of a Nazi cult of undeath.

"King of the Zombies" is one of those movies that you should not show to your ultra-liberal, hyper-PC friends. Their heads will explode when Moreland (as Jeff, friend and loyal servant to adventuresome pilot, Mac) starts in on his stereotypical, subserviant negro comedy routine--a character that was typical in this sort of film through the mid-1940s.

There's a difference here, however. Unlike most films where the black comic relief character is a cowardly goof who needs the guidance and protection of the dashing, capable white hero to get safely through the night, it's actually Jeff who recognizes the danger faced by the heroes. If Mac and Bill weren't a pair of racist jackasses, who dismiss everything that Jeff has to say without even the slightest bit of consideration, there would have been fewer lives lost as the trio struggles against the Nazi zombie master.

Unfortunately, I doubt the filmmakers were aware of this irony, either while reading the script, during shooting, or while assembling the final product. If they were, it goes unnoticed by any character in the film. Given the overall lack of quality in this too-slowly-paced, mostly badly acted low-budget part horror/part wartime propaganda film, I am almost certain the juxtaposition of the very clever black character against the dull-witted white heroes is a complete accident.

I can't really recommend "King of the Zombies", but I do think Mantan Moreland's performance is an excellent one, as he has great comedic timing and a whole raft of truly hilarious lines. The fact that Jeff ultimately emerges as the brightest character in the film is also something that's noteworthy, and I think it gives the film a unique twist.

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