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Oscar Horrors: King of the Zombies' Tribal Beats

In this series, Team Experience is looking at Oscar nominated or Oscar winning contributions from or related to the horror genre. In this episode, Robert Gannon -- who dreamt up this whole series for us! -- looks at a true oddity in Oscar history.

HERE LIES...The original score of King of the Zombies (1941). There are a few interesting things to note about the Oscar nomination for a brief horror film (67 minutes!) that has not aged well. The least of which is that, music aside, it's not a particularly great or memorable film.

The year is 1942. Music is still a respected category at the Academy Awards. In an odd twist, 20 films are nominated for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture. Only at the 1945 ceremony were more films nominated in the category. At this point in Oscar history, there was no limit on the number of nominees. The nominated films simply met a quality threshold. That meant films like Citizen Kane and How Green Was My Valley could compete right alongside B-pictures like King of the Zombies.

As far as I'm concerned, King of the Zombies is the best nominated original score from that year. The zombies in this politically incorrect horror film are voodoo zombies, converted from slaves on a remote island off the coast of South America. Strains of a secret ritual rise and fall out of the sound mix, confusing the American travelers who crashed on the island. Various drums pound out a syncopated rhythm while a chorus of unseen voices chant and sing out a uniform refrain in (presumably) a made up language. It's a haunting blend that offers some of the only scares in the entire film. For a modern equivalent of how the score is used, think of how ineffective The Village would be without James Newton Howard's tension-building score.

I spend a lot of time listening to and researching film scores for my music direction work. The score of King of the Zombies is one that I can pull up in my head instantly and start playing. It's precise, it's perfect for the film, and it's very memorable.

King of the Zombies' score by Edward J. Kay set the foundation for modern voodoo zombie films. If there are voodoo rituals involved, you will hear the same tribal-inspired rhythms and chant-like vocals with nothing else in the mix. It's amazing that a film this small and inconsequential so readily established a horror covention.

Other Oscar Horrors...
Rosemary's Baby - Best Supporting Actress
The Swarm - Best Costume Design
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane -Best Actress in a Leading Role
The Birds - Best Effects, Special Visual Effects
The Fly -Best Makeup
Death Becomes Her -Best Effects, Visual Effects
The Exorcist -Best Actress in a Supporting Role 
Rosemary's Baby - Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
Beetlejuice - Best Makeup

Carrie - Best Actress in a Leading Role
Bram Stoker's Dracula - Best Costume Design
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Best Actor in a Leading Role
Poltergeist - Best Effects, Visual Effects
Hellboy II: The Golden Army -Achievement in Makeup
The Silence of the Lambs -Best Director
The Tell-Tale Heart -Best Short Subject, Cartoons

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Reader Comments (1)

oscar history is the greatest thing. you think you know it all and then someone reminds you of something you've forgotten or never know. I swear i've never even heard of this movie.

i must brush up on my early 40s cinema, clearly.

October 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R
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