We usually equate Romero’s Night of the Living Dead with the rise of the zombie movies (and with daring to have a black male lead). But while they may not always crawl from the grave, zombies have been around throughout horror film history. So I checked out a trio of zombie films from before the gut-munching breed was dug up.
WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)
A year after Dracula, Bela Lugosi played an evil genius who controls minds to turn people into zombies. And he looked pretty much like Dracula with facial hair.
The plot is about this one dude who invites a couple to get married at his place. But he has other plans. He wants the chick for himself, so he asks Bela to make her his zombie bitch. But he hates the way she turns out and wants a chick with a little life in her, so he asks Bela to turn her back. No one tells Bela what to do!
There are voodoo rituals, a hawk, close-ups on Bela’s evil eyes, and a genuinely unfrightening zombie plot.
TEENAGE ZOMBIES (1960)
Teenage Zombies seemed like it was going to be so much more my thing. A group of teens gets stranded on an island where a crazy woman and her freaky looking zombie assistant lock them in cages with the intention of turning them into zombies.
While the film is a great template for modern flicks about teenagers taking a wrong turn into horror, the only really creepy thing about the movie is the assistant zombie. EEK! Looks like a still from a much more terrifying movie.
Teenage Zombies feels like seriously old school home-brewed horror. Stiff performances, repetitive, boring dialogue, awfully executed fight scenes, and pretty much no zombie action add up to a big a snoozer. And the playful, upbeat final lines make this feel like an episode of Scooby Doo. Cue laugh track.
And don’t even ask me about the part the big ape plays in the film.
KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1941)
This is it. This is the king of all black and white zombie movies. Actually, King of the Zombies is probably one of the best zombedies EVER. I’m not even kidding.
When a special agent’s plane crashes on an isolated island during World War II and we’re immediately introduced to his tag-along black butler, played by one Mantan Moreland, I cringed at what looked like it was going to be a stereotypical racist portrayal of its time. I was ready for him to be the brunt of all the jokes.
Instead, Mantan Moreland delivers all the jokes, beginning right after the crash with the line “I thought I was a little off color to be a ghost.” He is brilliant in this movie, which is basically about the dumb clueless white guys around him being ignorant to the fact that the “doctor” whose house they are staying in is actually creating an army of black zombie servants in his basement. It’s like Mantan is the Benson of his time.
While Mantan is essentially the type of “fool” character Benson used to mock, he’s also the star of the film. King of the Zombies is about him and his comical situations as he is unraveling the truth and putting a stop to the evil doctor. When Mantan plays along with the doctor’s “hypnosis” to make him a zombie, I was giggling out loud. Yet despite the endless jokes, the zombie servants in the movie are actually quite creepy.
While King of the Zombies is a movie you hear nothing about, it really should be considered a classic of the horror comedy genre and way ahead of its time for not only making a black man the main character, but for making him the last man standing in a horror movie.
It’s pretty inexcusable that Mantan isn’t the featured face on any of the promotional posters.