Starring Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy and Joseph Cawthorn
Produced by Edward Halperin Productions
Pop culture today seems more and more focused on a single horror creature. While Twilight and its vampires have come and gone, zombies seem to be as ubiquitous on the big and small screens as there are undead in World War Z. These films and shows have given us all sorts of zombies. Fast zombies. Slow zombies. Romantic zombies. Even "zombies" that may not be zombies at all. (And no, I am not stepping into the 28 Days Later debate.)
With the supremacy of zombies in the horror genre, it's useful to go back to the undead's humble beginnings. In the case of today's brain-eating legions, patient zero is 1932's White Zombie, starring horror legend Bela Lugosi.
The story of White Zombie will be unrecognizable to modern zombie film aficionados. An engaged couple, Madeleine and Neil, arrive in Haiti to be married. They head for a plantation owned by their friend Charles Beaumont, unaware that the man is obsessed with Madeleine and wants her for himself.
Beaumont approaches Murder Legendre, a voodoo master, for help in winning his love. The evil Legendre runs a sugar mill using zombies as his labor force. He gives Charles a potion that will turn Madeleine into a zombie. And from there, things get complicated.
The zombies in White Zombie will seem entirely foreign to fans of The Walking Dead, Night of the Living Dead and the recent World War Z. The zombies appear dead, but they are not entirely mindless. They hate Legendre and would murder him but for the mental control he exercises over them. Madeleine is turned into a zombie, but her "death" is not a permanent condition.
As with many zombie films, White Zombie uses its situation to address social issues and the human condition, specifically focusing on labor conditions and free will. Sadly, the movie is barely interested in doing a flyby on these issues. We get a brief scene in Legendre's mill with the zombies being forced to work every hour. One of the zombies falls into the machinery, but the work continues without interruption.
Beaumont struggles with the idea of loving a woman who is forced to obey his commands. His dilemma and the resulting dialogue are so on the nose as to sound nonsensical. And the film contemplates this for just long enough to give Legendre time to zombify Beaumont.
White Zombie excels at conveying mood and atmosphere. Legendre's castle, set on a cliff overlooking the ocean, provides just the right amount of shadow and dread. And the look of the zombies in this black and white film is suitably creepy.
Where the film absolutely collapses like a brained member of an undead horde is the acting. Lugosi, so great as the titular vampire in the prior year's Dracula, is maniacally over-the-top in the most annoying of ways. Bellamy's Madeleine and John Harron's Neil overreact to every line and sound. And Robert Frazer plays Beaumont, a scheming character trying to conceal his true intentions, by wearing every emotion plainly on his sleeve and face.
White Zombie is ultimately more important than it is good. A fine sense of tone and mood is more than offset by a ridiculous script and hammy acting. Still, if you are looking for the first time zombies rose from the dead, White Zombie remains history-making.
** out of *****
- White Zombie was made as an independent film, but utilized a lot of Universal Studios' sets from films including Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
- The band White Zombie, popularized by Beavis and Butthead in the 1990s, took their name from this film. Lead singer Rob Zombie has gone on to direct horror movies himself.