By Andy Wells
White Zombie (1932) ***
NR, 69 min.
Director: Victor Halperin
Writers: Garnet Weston (story & dialogue), William B. Seabrook (novel “The Magic Island”)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Frazier, John Harron
When I was in high school—way back in the late ‘80s—I was an avid comic book collector. Some of my favorite comics were those focusing on vintage crime heroes, like The Shadow. During their 10th Anniversary, the independent comic book publisher Eclipse put out a Shadow type of one-shot based not only on the vintage crime hero The Prowler, but also on the cult classic horror movie “White Zombie” titled quite simply “The Prowler in White Zombie”.
It wasn’t a great comic book. The Prowler was such an obvious rip-off of The Shadow and didn’t carry half of The Shadow’s mysterious nature. The villain, however, was taken directly from the “White Zombie” movie’s Bela Lugosi character, who looked like one of the coolest of the actor’s career in B-horror flicks. I had never heard of the movie at the time and quickly looked it up.
Taking place in Haiti, the film opens as a couple, Neil (John Harron) and Madeline (Madge Bellamy), make their way across the island in a coach to a destination where they will be married. Along the way they come across a group of “natives” who are burying their dead in the middle of the road. According to the coach driver this will discourage grave robbers. Later they come across a strange figure in the road. This is ‘Murder’ Legendre (Lugosi). His stare is penetrating to the bride. He is later revealed to be a voodoo master.
The couple arrives at their destination, the plantation of Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), who immediately falls into deep infatuation with Madeline. So distraught over his crush on the bride-to-be, Charles seeks out Legendre for help in making Neil “disappear.” Legendre convinces Charles that this won’t solve his problem of Madeline’s lack of love for him. Instead he suggests Charles slip her a poison that will kill her so she can be transformed into a zombie servant, like the legions of workers he employs.
Director Victor Halperin puts together a moody independent production by using various sets from other studio horror pictures being made at the time. He keeps the sense of native Haiti about the whole production with Haitian background music often playing in the distance. The plantation and castles sets are grand in nature, with the final scenes taking place in a coastal gothic castle, providing both a classic horror feel and a geographical solution to the heroes’ problems. It may not be easy to kill a zombie, but leading them to a watery doom isn’t so difficult given their diminished mental capacity.
With Lugosi’s involvement, the entire production has a very “Dracula” influenced feel to it. Coming a year after that film, Lugosi’s charm helps to fuel his voodoo master’s gifts. His makeup is most certainly designed to divorce him from the more attractive villain of Dracula, but the way Halperin uses close ups on his eyes and repeats shots of his hands clasping together to show his control over his zombies is most certainly derivative of some of the techniques utilized by Tod Browning to imply Dracula’s force of influence.
The performances are nothing to write home about. Only Lugosi really stands out as a performer. For people more used to modern acting, this may be considered a drawback, but Lugosi has a gift for chewing the scenery around him. Take for instance the scene in which he whittles a voodoo doll for Madeline as he waits for the poison to take effect. He seems to experience pure joy at being evil. He glances at a vulture and plays his pleasure up at the prospect that he will deny it a dinner.
Of course, “White Zombie” holds more horror history significance than it does dramatic impact. It is thought to be the first full-length movie to involve zombies and refer to them by name. Now, the zombies in the movie aren’t the same type of zombies that George Romero would later turn into a prolific horror subgenre during the civil rights movement with “Night of the Living Dead”. The only relation these zombies hold to those is that they are the dead brought back to the semblance of life. Even that isn’t entirely true since one character speculates that they aren’t truly dead at all, but merely under a spell created by a potion of Legendre’s and not a poison that kills them.
Regardless of the technical aspects about how zombies work, the significance of “White Zombie” as the first zombie movie makes it profound indeed. While not well received at the time of its release, it has since gained cult status through home video and horror fanatics who hold it in high regard as the origin as of the zombie flick. Hard Rock musician and filmmaker Robert Cummings, better known as Rob Zombie, took his stage name and the name of his band White Zombie from the movie. It has far outreached its meager beginnings as a small indie horror flick made cheaply to capitalize off the Universal monsters horror craze and became the grandmother of perhaps the most lucrative and popular subgenres in cinematic history.