From the DVD case: This genuinely eerie thriller is the ultimate zombie movie. Sinister Lugosi is the master of hordes of walking dead who work a sugar plantation in Haiti. (1932, b&w)
Mark says: If for nothing else, White Zombie deserves your attention for being the first zombie film ever produced (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari doesn’t count; Cesare was a “somnambulist”).
White Zombie was independently produced by two minor silent film makers, Edward and Victor Halperin, with Victor Halperin (Revolt of the Zombies) actually directing the picture.
The Halperins were not fans of “talkies,”and wanted to create a film reminiscent of the silent movies of the previous decade. Using a script by Garnett Weston, the brothers produced a horror movie which relies heavily on strong Expressionistic visuals and stylized acting. The dialog is minimal.
Because of these elements, White Zombie seems older than it actually is, but the overall result is quite effective. If you can get past the dated feel of the film, White Zombie is an eerie bit of work. Much credit is due to the cinematography of Arthur Martinelli, who keeps us captivated visually even during segments where the story lags.
The DVD description featured above does not describe the film’s plot adequately. So let me elaborate further:
Robert Frazer (The Vampire Bat) plays Charles Beaumont, a wealthy traveler who finds himself enamored by the charms of pretty Miss Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy). Unfortunately, for Mr. Beaumont, Madeleine is already engaged to Neil Parker (John Harron). In a devious plot, Mr. Beaumont offers Madeleine and Neil the use of his plantation on Haiti as a location for their nuptials. To sweeten the deal, Mr. Beaumont makes Neil a lucrative job offer. The couple immediately accepts the generous proposal.
However, Beaumont’s true intention is to lure Madeleine away from Neil. When he can’t accomplish this through smooth talk, he turns to evil zombie master, Murder Legendre (what a great name!) played by horror icon, Bela Lugosi (Dracula, The Devil Bat). Legendre has already incorporated many of the islanders (most of them his enemies) into his zombie brigade of sugar mill workers. He is all too happy to help Beaumont obtain his human prize.
Without me giving too much away, Beaumont finds that a zombie lover is not much fun. He also discovers that Legendre has his own desires regarding Madeleine and is not above using his hypnotic zombie skills to acquire the object of his affections. Beaumont is certainly an unscrupulous fellow, but he is a saint compared to the evil madness of Legendre.
The acting, for the most part, is poor to adequate. Harron’s portrayal of Neil Parker is especially embarrassing to watch. Of all the performances, his seems the most dated. Frazer’s performance is not much better, but he redeems himself during scenes where he suffers an excruciating transformation into one of the living dead.
Madge Bellamy as Madeleine isn’t given a lot to do. She does make for a pretty love interest (in a China doll sort of way) but is less convincing as a zombie. Still, her features are unusual enough to captivate us, and her acting does not distract us from the dreamlike quality of the picture. Madeleine is the “white zombie” to which the film title refers.
But Lugosi is the real star of this movie. Sometimes I am overly harsh in regards to Bela’s performances, but he really shines in this role. He seems to relish his lines, and his delivery is more subtle and sinister than in his later works. Of course, this was still the early 1930s, and he had yet to be beaten down by the long string of terrible roles he would later subject himself to.
Speaking of terrible film roles, Ed Wood would later have Lugosi reprise his zombie-calling, hand-clutching-hand maneuvers in Bride of the Monster. (Also, White Zombie is the film Lugosi and Wood are watching in Tim Burton’s psuedo-biography, Ed Wood.)
If some of the sets look familiar, that’s because many were borrowed from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), King of Kings (1927), Frankenstein (1931), and Dracula (1931). Universal’s own Jack Pierce served as make-up artist. This all adds to the great appearance and mood of the film.
Long time readers know my pet peeve regarding comedy relief roles in atmospheric horror films. I am overjoyed to report that White Zombie does not feature any such distraction.
Scene to watch for: Legendre (Lugosi) casually carves away at a wax figure as Beaumont (Frazer) agonizingly slips further and further into the zombie state.
Line to listen for: “They are not men, monsieur. They are dead bodies!”
Wikipedia entry: White Zombie
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ½ out of 5.