King of the Zombies

Movie Information

In Brief: The story goes that King of the Zombies was written and designed with Bela Lugosi in mind for the villainous Dr. Sangre. It certainly has all the earmarks of a Lugosi role — a creepy foreigner with a zombie-like wife (Patricia Stacey), a sinister, isolated castle, equally sinister servants and a small squad of zombies. Instead, we got a low-rent, fourth-billed (rightly) actor — Henry Victor — taking on the Lugosi honors. Well, even though Victor was English, he was raised in Germany, so the accent is genuine, but here he goes (or was directed to go) for the famous Lugosi pause. When Lugosi does it, it’s eerie, otherworldly, hypnotic. When Victor says, “How about a little wine … to warm you up” or “He won’t … hurt you if he … likes you,” it just sounds like someone having trouble remembering his lines. Hobbled though it is by an uninspiring bad guy, the clue to the film’s enduring appeal lies in the layout of its main title credit. It duly lists obnoxious leading man Dick Purcell and damsel-in-distress Joan Woodbury. Then, on a separate line and in bigger type, we have “Mantan Moreland.” He’s really the show and the studio knew it. They also knew his presence — prominently displayed — meant solid business in Harlem and other predominately black communities where he was very popular. Moreland might go through the motions of playing the stock stereotypical character, but all the while he was cracking wise at his employers and making sport of the movie he found himself in (as witnessed in his assessment of the sound of voodoo drums with, “I don’t know, but it ain’t Gene Krupa.”) And I’ve been getting the good out of his excuse for being a chatty “zombie” — “Can I help it that I’m loquacious?” — for years now. (It’s an excellent riposte to editors complaining about the length of your writing.)
Genre: Horror
Director: Jean Yarbrough
Starring: Dick Purcell, Joan Woodbury, Mantan Moreland, Henry Victor, John Archer, Madame Sul-Te-Wan
Rated: NR



Truth to tell, King of the Zombies is an unusually elaborate — elaborate being a relative term here — production for Monogram. The sets are actually solid-looking and atmospherically lit (as opposed to merely under-lit, as was often the case). And the musical score by Edward Kay is more ambitious than the studio’s usual use of library tracks. Whether or not it really deserved that Academy Award nomination it got (no, I’m not kidding) is another matter. The story, of course, is beyond preposterous with its Nazi agent (never identified as such, but it’s obvious) mad doctor attempting to use voodoo rituals to get secret information. But then, that’s part of the charm of these movies — the feeling that they were written by precocious (but demented) 12-year-olds, with all the logic that suggests.


The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen King of the Zombies Thursday, June 30, at 7:30 p.m. at Grail Moviehouse, hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Scott Douglas.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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