King of the Zombies (1941) review-possibly the worst Oscar contender of all time

To properly gauge the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ historic distain for the horror genre, one need only consider the curious case of Jean Yarbrough’s King of the Zombies (1941).

As it stands, this low-budget film is, according to IMDB, the only zombie-related property to ever be nominated for an Oscar, with Edward Kay getting the nod for Best Original Score for a Dramatic Picture.

Now, there’s a lot wrong with that scenario, the most obvious gripe being the fact that King of the Zombies actually bills itself as a comedy and features truly forgettable music.

But the bigger problem emerges once you realize how bad this 1941 shit-fest actually is in comparison to all the other great horror cinema that came along after it, only a small fraction of which got any attention from the Academy Awards.

The plot of King of the Zombies, if you can call it that, revolves around three travellers (a pilot, a passenger and his manservant) who crash land on a mysterious Caribbean island that’s inhabited by a mad scientist.

After a lot of haunted house hijinks transpire, the trio eventually discover that their host has enslaved the native population and turned them into mindless zombies, hoping to use their voodoo magic to extract military secrets from a captured US Admiral.

As zany and madcap as that plot recap sounds, it’s incredible how dull and devoid of life (pun intended) King of the Zombies actually is for most of its runtime.

Most scenes just involve the film’s principle characters standing in the middle a static shot and spouting off one-liners, like they are rehearsing for a high school play.

Even when zombies finally enter the picture, at least two out of three leads treat this situation way too casually and do a really poor job of conveying the fact that anything remotely supernatural is happening.

The filmmakers also put next to no effort into establishing a macabre or spooky atmosphere, as most of the props and sets seem like they were recycled from a patchwork of other, better movies.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned in the past, most of these cinematic shortcomings can be forgiven if a comedy manages to bring the laughs on a consistent basis.

Unfortunately, King of the Zombies only has one big comedic trump card in the form of Mantan Moreland, who plays the befuddled manservant Jeff.

On one hand, Moreland is the most endearing character in the movie, since he reacts appropriately to the existence of shambling corpses, as opposed to his fellow co-stars who might as well be replaced with cardboard cutouts.

The actor also manages to score some of the movie’s only genuine laughs through his natural comedic timing, something that he probably developed through years of performing vaudeville.

But it’s impossible to talk about Moreland’s performance without tackling the style of comedy that he employs, which is heavily influenced by southern minstrel shows.

Now, I don’t usually like to bash older movies for containing elements that [inset current year] audiences might find distasteful. But when it comes to King of the Zombies, the filmmakers’ over reliance on Moreland’s bugged-out eyes and dull-witted enunciation gets old quickly, especially when you realize that the movie has nothing else to offer in terms of comedy.

It also doesn’t help that Moreland’s Jeff is constantly put in a position to try and convince the other characters that they are in danger, even though his concerns are regularly swatted away like he is an over-imaginative child.

Racial stereotypes aside, the biggest acting sin on display in King of the Zombies actually belongs to Henry Victor, who plays the mad scientist Dr. Miklos Sangre.

Reportedly, Victor was a last-minute replacement for a role that was designed for two other actors and it really shows.

Outside of being of horribly miscast as a villain, Victor also can’t seem to remember his lines half the time, resulting in a bunch of awkward scenes that should have been relegated to a blooper reel.

Even though the film’s two remaining leads (Dick Purcell and John Archer) can at least deliver their dialogue confidently, the pair still have very little personality or charisma to speak of.

This leaves Moreland to carry the entire movie on his back almost single-handedly, even though its screenwriter (and broader society at the time) didn’t view him as anything more than a cheap comedy sidekick.

As a result, King of the Zombies’ biggest failing, outside of its piss-poor production values, is the fact that it doesn’t provide the audience with any emotional weight to anchor all of the supernatural shenanigans.

And it’s not like this is a tough formula to crack. Around that same time, actors like Bob Hope, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello found a lot of success mixing comedy and horror through projects like The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

But King of the Zombies probably didn’t have a hope of being good at its conception, since it was produced by Monogram Pictures.

Unlike Universal Studios or any other big-time operation in Hollywood, Monogram employed a “fast and dirty” approach to film production that emphasized speed over quality, resulting in movies that managed to turn a profit despite not getting a lot of attention from critics.

But even with this reputation, King of the Zombies still managed to snag a historic Oscar nomination in 1941, which is either the result of an insider bet gone wrong or someone working at Monogram knowing how to play the system.

Either way, this movie remains an interesting footnote in the Academy Awards’ storied history, serving as a small exception to the organization’s traditional disdain for horror filmmaking.

It’s just a shame that such a historically significant film is the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry.  

Verdict:

2/10

Corner store companion:

Twizzlers (because you deserve to enjoy something tasty while watching this dreck)

Fun facts:

-Release date: May 14, 1941

King of the Zombies ultimately did not take home the Oscar for Best Original Score for a Dramatic Picture at the 1942 Academy Awards. That honour went to Bernard Herrmann for his work on All That Money Can Buy.

-Both Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre were considered for the role of the film’s mad scientist, but a deal could not be reached in time for either actor.

-While horror movies routinely get snubbed at the Academy Awards, some films have managed to break through that barrier and actually bring home a gold statue. These movies include: Rosemary’s Baby (Best Supporting Actress-Ruth Gordon), The Exorcist (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound), The Omen (Best Original Music), Misery (Best Actress-Kathy Bates), Black Swan (Best Actress-Natalie Portman), Get Out (Best Original Screenplay) and Silence of the Lambs (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor-Anthony Hopkins and Best Actress-Jodie Foster).

-Monogram Pictures operated in Hollywood from 1931 to 1953 before transitioning to the name Allied Artists Pictures Corporation. Monogram/Allied ultimately filed for bankruptcy and dissolved in 1979.

– Mantan Moreland reprised his role as Jeff in the film’s sequel Revenge of the Zombies, which was released in 1943.

King of the Zombies is currently in the public domain and can be watched in its entirety on YouTube.

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