Mantan Moreland: An early zombie comic-genius

“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.

Mantan Moreland, 1902-1973
Mantan Moreland, 1902-1973

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.”

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Perfect Day… of the Dead

Yesterday I was contacted by a guy who has created a parody video for “Perfect Day” using attendees at a British zombie convention held earlier this month. I think it’s delightful, and am happy to share it here.

First, here is the original video.

And here is the much superior zombie version.

Note: While you may appear to see zombies in the first video, please be assured that they are only Lou Reed and David Bowie.

Book Review: Zombie CSU

Full Disclosure: I was invited to be a contributor to Zombie CSU, and then my contribution was cut in the editing process.  Probably, it is not possible to objectively review a book after this has happened to you.  However, Zombie CSU is an interesting tome that deserves a review, so I’m gonna give it a go.

Jonathan Mayberry’s Zombie CSU (published this month by Citadel Press) is a long, low love-song to all things zombie.  It is a compendium of musings, interviews, and artwork (by many, many artists).  It is an orgy of opinion, discussion, facts, and conjectures about zombies.  And it does, rather loosely, contain information about how law enforcement officials might hypothetically seek to fight zombies.  (Mayberry’s real-world “experts” give every appearance of being culled from groups of neighbors and friends he knows personally in rural Pennsylvania.  Perhaps this must be so.  [I wonder how long you could keep your job as a real police commissioner somewhere if you let it be widely known that you fancy yourself “the national expert on handling hypothetical zombie attacks…”])

When I told my friend Chris that there was going to be a book called Zombie CSU, he conjectured that you would have to be the worst cop in the world to happen upon a crime perpetrated by zombies (farmhouse door ripped down, valuables left untouched, residents’ brains eaten) and need to “call in a special squad” to figure out what had happened.  If you can’t get a hunch or something from all the brainless bodies, then dude, it’s time to think about a new career…

Happily, Mayberry does not long mediate upon these technical points.  Rather, he makes the bulk of the book a rollicking and delightful collage of zombie information.  I was most interested in his lists of best and worst zombie films.  (I get the impression he has seen even more zombie films that I have, which is saying something…)  I was also interested in his brief meditation on sexually exploitative zombie-themed media, and wished he had explored it at greater length.  (Zombies have no place for racism, but what about sexism?  Zombies don’t seem to discriminate based upon sex, but could appearances be misleading?  And does the zombie-fan community mirror zombies themselves on this subject by not being sexist, or is there a double-standard?  Clearly, there is more here for someone to write about.)

Final Assessment: I think it’s a good book.  In taking such a wide and eclectic survey, Mayberry has done a sort of study in “zombie phenomenology.”  Zombie-culture evolves, you see.  And if a cultural historian in the distant future needs to know “What was zombie-culture like back in 2008?” then he or she will need look no further than Zombie CSU for a definitive answer.

Travis Barker

Not every post on this blog will be about zombies, and today I want to write a post about Travis Barker.

Barker is one of the most important living drummers, and on Friday he was in a plane crash that killed several people and put him in critical condition.

Barker is known for playing with many groups, including Blink 182, and one of my favorite bands, the Transplants. 

Think you haven’t seen Barker before?  Well, if you watched the Superbowl this year, then think again.  Remember the silhouetted drummer you saw playing crazily over the opening sequence graphics?  That was Travis Barker.

In technical drumming terms, I think Barker’s biggest innovation has been the addition (in a traditional four-beat) of an extra hi-hat note, performed with the left hand, on the “and” of the “four” in each alternating measure.  You can hear him play it on songs like “Sad But True” and “Quick Death” by the Transplants.  But the beat gets picked up by everybody, and is really, really influential.

Barker has been a big influence on my drumming personally, and I hope that he recovers and gets well soon.  I am totally bummed about this!

The adventure of the Miskatonic University lapel pin

My pin

My favorite writer of all time is H.P. Lovecraft.   He wrote wonderful horror stories, science-fiction stories, poems, and at least one story about zombie-like creatures coming out of graveyards to feed on the living.

I am also a sucker for Lovecraft-related merch.  I have an Arkham, MA sticker on my car, and a Miskatonic University sweatshirt I sometimes wear.  Anyhow, the other day I purchased a Miskatonic University lapel-pin over the internet.  It arrived a little over a week ago, and I started wearing it on my lapel.

Since then, in the course of my travels in-and-around the city of Chicago, several people have stopped me and commented on it.  Their comments can be summarized thusly:

1 Person – “Oh hey.  Miskatonic University.  Cool!”

7 People – “Go Michigan!”/”Go Wolverines!”

And actually, one of the people in the latter group (I met him at a conference in the Loop) was an employee of the University of Michigan.

Alas, the adventure continues…

A lost zombie-gem: Brian Posehn in Undead or Alive

An actual film
An actual film

Sometimes I view a sub-par (or downright terrible) zombie film that still has a redeeming aspect or quality to it–a performance, or special effects sequence, or cameo that I think is just great–despite being in the middle of a lousy film.  Such is the case with Brian Posehn’s performance in the 2007 Chris Kattan and James Denton straight-to-DVD zombie western, Undead or Alive.

First off, it’s not a terrible film.  But neither is it Shaun of the Dead.  I’d give it about a 5 out of 10.  It’s got a few good jokes, and Kattan is all right.  (I always liked his “Mango” SNL character in small doses, and his “Gay Hitler” was funny, even if it was just one joke.)  James Denton gets some of the funniest lines, actually.  Navi Rawat is ridiculously good-looking as the love-interest, but doesn’t really add to the comedy.  The real highlight, however is Brian Posehn!!!

I’ve liked Posehn for a long time.  I never watched him on Just Shoot Me!, but I thought his bit-parts on Mr. Show were awesome, and I’ve always liked his stand-up comedy.  If you don’t know his name, Google him, and you’ll probably find you’ve seen his face before.

Born to play a zombie
Born to play a zombie

Anyhow, Posehn is born to play a zombie.  His natural, lumbering gait is perfectly suited for the living dead.  His zombie mannerisms–whether attacking, startled, or biding his time–are just excellently rendered.  My only complaint is that there is not enough of him in the film!  In the opening sequence of Undead or Alive, the Posehn-zombie decapitates a chicken.  Then he’s featured a little more in the introduction, and then again at the very end of the film.  Alack!  If only he could have been the main character!

Anyhow, watching Posehn’s excellent performance made me think about other actors whom I would like to see play zombies.  Here is my list (What’s yours?):

  • Udo Kier (Has already played every other monster there is)
  • Steve Buscemi (Unwisely chose to be in 28 Days instead of 28 Days Later)
  • Sigourney Weaver (Could use natural toothiness to her advantage)
  • John Cleese (Seems to have a zombie-gangliness about him)
  • Johnny Depp (Just to see what the hell he would do!!!)

The second most important zombie movie of all time

That whole "eating your brains"-thing?  Yeah, this is where it came from.
"...braaaaains..." Est. 1985

I’ve often heard the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash called the three most important punk-bands of all time because of what they respectively established about the genre. Namely:

  • The Ramones established how punk should sound.
  • The Sex Pistols established that punk should be rude and dissrepectful to authority.
  • The Clash established that punk should be political (specifically, left-leaning political)

In that connection, it is interesting to think about the relative importance of zombie movies in terms of what they established about the zombie-genre (or just the zombie). If people know one thing about zombies (modern zombies, not the “classical” Haitian voodoo kind), it’s that they are reanimated corpses, arisen from the dead and on the hunt for the living. But if people know a second thing about zombies (most do), it’s that they want to eat your brain. Usually, zombies are portrayed as being able to articulate a primitive version of the word: “…braaaaaaaains…”

Based upon these dominant perceptions about zombies, one must conclude (correctly) that the most important zombie film of all time is Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. However, one must also conclude that right behind it at #2 is Dan O’Bannon’s lesser-known Return of the Living Dead.

  • Night of the Living Dead established that zombies are reanimated corpses who are after you.
  • Return of the Living Dead established that zombies want to eat your brains.

I’m continually surprised to find that many zombie fans, even learned aficionados, don’t know exactly where the whole “…braaaaains…”-thing comes from, or if it even had a single origination-point. Well, it did. It was Return of the Living Dead.

Released in 1985, ROTLD features campily-hilarious 80’s stereotypes and great music.  In addition to being canonical to zombie fans, ROTLD is a delightful movie (one of my favorites) and an excellent entrance to the genre for anyone unfamiliar. The acting is surprisingly good (for an unknown cast), and the special-effects are great. The violence is creative, witty, and well-timed. There’s gratuitious nudity, sure, but it feels funny and appropriate to the story, not forced and perv-y. The immortal (to zombie fans) lines “send more cops” and “send more paramedics” are also spoken in this film.

You’ve got to give props to Romero as the originator of the modern zombie.  He’s the “Don of the Dead,” the “Knight of the Living Dead.” Sure. Absolutely.  No question.

But as far as I’m concerned, in order of importance, Dan O’Bannon should be right behind him.

I wonder what the third most important zombie film of all time is?

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