“There’s just two things I hate… and zombies is both of ’em!” – Mantan Moreland
This coming Sunday will mark 35 years since the passing of Mantan Moreland, a American journeyman actor who attained modest fame in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s for playing comic foils, frequently in B-grade horror films. (Probably, his two best known zombie films are King of the Zombies and Revenge of the Zombies.) Horror-wood.com describes Moreland as “an American original whose work in film was usually better than the films themselves.” I can’t put it any better than that.
But too few zombie fans (and horror fans) are familiar with Moreland’s delightful work. I suspect that this is because he is incorrectly lumped-in with actors of his day who perpetuated negative sterotypes. In Moreland’s era, there were actors (with racist names that make me cringe just to type) like Stepin Fetchit and Sleep ‘n Eat who definitely perpetuated stereotypes of African Americans as lazy, dull-witted, and servile. However, Moreland’s performances should not be lumped-in with theirs.
The characters portrayed by Moreland are, generally, resourceful and perceptive. (When he’s in a horror-film, Moreland’s character is usually the first to suspect that monsters might be lurking nearby. [They ARE!])
Moreland’s humorous, easily-flustered characters reacted to zombies (and other monsters) in ways that were funny to watch. (That was usually the point of the film–or at least what the filmmakers were counting on to be funny and entertaining.) This comedian-encountering-monster setup was an accepted formula for many comic-horror films of the time, regardless of the race of the actors involved.
So I feel like there’s a double-standard when people call Moreland’s films racist. It’s like, Bob Hope can stammer and bug-out his eyes when he sees a zombie (as he, in fact, does in films like the 1940 horror-comedy The Ghost Breakers), and that’s perfectly fine. But when Mantan Moreland does the exact same thing, it’s racist? What?
I guess the characters Moreland plays can be said to be “servile” in that they’re usually butlers or chauffeurs or what-have-you, but you’ve got to remember that it was 1939. If Moreland’s character had been the Vice President of the United States, the film wouldn’t even have been called King of the Zombies, it would have been called Holy Crap!!! Black Vice-President!!! or something. The zombies would have been incidental.
But I think the greatest vindication of Mantan Moreland (and his work) comes from his peers in Hollywood. When Shemp Howard died in 1955, Mantan was seriously considered as an addition to the Three Stooges. And Bill Cosby (an actor who definitely has zero-tolerance for negative portrayals of African Americans) cast Moreland to play his uncle in the original 1969-1971 Bill Cosby Show.
Anyhow, I think Moreland was a great comedic actor, and that many of his zombie films are worth watching, especially if you like “classic” zombies (that is, Haitian Voodoo zombies who are under a shaman’s command–as opposed to reanimated corpses who want to eat your brain). To learn more about him, I heartily recommend this article: “B-Horror’s Humorous Hero.”