Director: Victor Halperin
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn
Horror became a commodity in 1932 after the success of Frankenstein and Dracula, the previous year. Hollywood took no time in releasing other macabre thrillers, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Freaks, The Old Dark House and Murders in the Rue Morgue. The genre welcomed two new stars, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, the latter proving more successful in the long run. Karloff would make The Mummy that year and that would prove a smashing success, while Lugosi was relegated to Murders in the Rue Morgue, a consolation prize of sorts for ousted Frankenstein director, Robert Florey and Lugosi, who was originally to have portrayed the Monster. It was not as big of a success, and Lugosi soon found himself on the long road down poverty row, as the actor filed for bankruptcy that year.
Lugosi's reputation today is based largely on his work in b-films, particularly those he made for Monogram in the 40s and Ed Wood in the 50s, and which are all widely available today. However, his first b-horror film is happily as readily available and stands today as one of his bets vehicles. In fact, White Zombie is one of the finest horror films produced during the golden age of horror.
The film is set in Haiti and follows a young couple(Madge Bellamy and John Haron) who are travelling to a plantation owner's home, Charles Beaumont(Robert Frazer) who is to marry the couple. However, he has designs on the young woman and enlists the aid of a sinister figure named, Murder Legendre(Bela Lugosi) who is something of a wizard and has mastered the power of the black arts, including being able to reanimate the dead. Beaumont hires Legendre to use his zombie-making potion on the young woman and it works, placing her in a death-like trance. She is soon buried and later unearthed and carried away, her grieving husband discovering the empty crypt.
Desperate for help, the young man finds a Van Helsing-type, Dr. Bruner(Jospeh Cawthorn) who agrees to help him, and ask for a light at the most inopportune moments. The two venture to Legendre's mountaintop castle(which is a terrific looking place with borrowed sets from Dracula and Frankenstein.) They discover that the girl has been made a zombie slave and that Legendre has double-crossed Beaumont, slipping him the zombie poison, watching as he slowly succumbs to the ranks of the living dead. Beaumont's butler, Silver(Brandon Hurst, a genre regular) attempts to intervene, but is thwarted and carried away by Legendre's zombies and thrown into the sea(Honest to God, when I first saw this as a kid, the editing, which kept cutting to a screeching vulture, had me believe that Lugosi had him thrown into a magical stream which transformed him into the grotesque bird!)
The young man confronts Legendre and demands his girl back, but is overwhelmed by his zombies, who he attempts to shoot to no effect. However, Bruner knocks Legendre on the noggin and with his power temporarily diminished, his zombies send themselves over the cliff of the castle. The murderous zombie master attempts to regain control, but Beaumont sacrifices himself and takes Legendre over the side with him.
White Zombie is one of the most important horror films ever made. This was the film that began one of the genre's most enduring staples, the zombie film. Haiti and it's myths were introduced to America through a book entitled, The Magic Isle in 1929, and voodoo became a popular concept in the 1930s. There was even a short-lived Broadway play named, Zombie in 1932. White Zombie was the first of them, but also the most unique. No other one quite behaves like this one does, or most other horror films for that matter. This film and it's primitive techniques have more in common with Vampyr(1932) and Nosferatu(1922) than with future living dead endeavors.
The film has an aged look, which probably made it appear dated even in 1932. However, this does not work against the film, as it also succeeds in giving the film a dream-like atmosphere, often missing from many Gothic horrors. Not everything is squarely logical, like why would a young couple go all the way to a foreign country to see a man they had known for only a week to get married, or why there is a Gothic castle in Haiti(the remains of the French Aristocracy?) but it doesn't matter. White Zombie is a genuinely eerie and imaginative experience, working much like a horror fairy tale.
Director Victor Halperin films several memorable and creepy scenes that stay long in the memory, including Beaumont's first meeting with Legendre at the sugar mill, where dozens of zombies work. That monotonous creaking and grinding of the sugar mill is haunting and unforgettable, and the image of a clumsy zombie falling into the mill, as the rest of the zombies continue on, is bone-chilling.
This film contains some of the finest Gothic images in film. The opening burial in the road, Lugosi carving a wax statue of the heroine, while grinning appreciatively at a vulture(!) and the mountaintop castle are unforgettable. The graveyard scenes and within the crypt are also the eeriest of the era, clearly inspiring later Spanish and Italian horrors, and giving Frankenstein a run for it's money.
The shots of the zombie procession over the hills of Haiti are disturbing and the crackly, sparse soundtrack only enhances the mood of the whole film that much more.
Most of the acting is unfortunately, stilted, likely a product of the silent era. Madge Bellamy appears zombie-like throughout, even when her character is supposed to be normal, while John Harron is as wooden as it gets. Robert Frazer was always a solid reminder of a certain kind of hammy outdated form of acting and he overacts up a storm. His line readings, such as "Oh no, not that!" are grin-inducing.
Clarence Muse appears in the beginning as a frightened cabdriver and is able to evoke intelligence and authority into what could have been a cliched role. He was always a reliable character actor, performing similar services a dozen years later, opposite Lugosi in Invisible Ghost(1942).
Joseph Cawthorn is alot of fun as Dr. Bruner, bringing more humor to the role and warmth, in a much different turn than the authority figures portrayed by Edward Van Sloan in the Universal horrors. He has good comic timing and some good lines that make us believe that even a learned man such as he, could accept the supernatural in such circumstances.
One of the most memorable aspects of the picture are the wonderful zombie makeups utilized, all created by the great Jack Pierce, Universal's wizard of makeup. They are a motley crue of fiends, all based on Legendre's former enemies, with the former wizard/master and the bearded executioner, complete with wide staring eyes, appearing as the most memorable. No future zombies bear any resemblance to these earlier monstrosities and that's a shame, because they are quite frightening.
Of course, the main reason for this film being a classic is Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre, one of the most captivating villains of the classic horror film. With his mustache and beard, he truly appears the image of Satan, offering Beaumont a chance for love, if only he sell his soul to him. Legendre makes for a wonderful Mephistopheles, as he slyly goes about his business, bringing tiny bits of humor here and there, for this is a man who truly enjoys his work. It's a multifaceted performance and displays more versatility than Lugosi was usually afforded in his lifetime. Notice the pleasure and subtle humor he brings to the scene where he explains to Beaumont each of his zombie slaves and how they came to be. I always laugh when he gets to the tall, bearded zombie and explains how he was an executioner once, intoning in a still annoyed voice, "He even tried to execute me!"
His calculated cruelty when he poisons Beaumont and tells him of his non-existent future is wonderfully sadistic and Lugosi plays it with relish. He even has a chance for a touch of sympathy, first when he tries to dissuade Beaumont against using the zombie formula, explaining that it will never be real love. Later, he has that classic line when he answers John Harron's question of what his zombies are, when he sympathetically replies, "For you my friend, they are the angels of death!"
Lugosi does most of his acting, however, with body language, and never before were his hands and eyes put to such commanding use. The closeups of his eyes are used to terrifying effect, and were later superimposed in the follow-up, Revolt of the Zombies(1936), a misfire that was without the talent of Lugosi. His eyes are used to great effect early in the film, when his face appears suddenly in a wine glass, in one of the cinema's first jump scare moments.
His hands are constantly at work, throughout, twisting and cavorting, making the audience believe that whatever it is he is doing, must be working and that he is indeed a master of the black arts.
Murder Legendre is one of Lugosi's greatest creations, even more compelling than Dracula and this may be his finest horror performance. It's certainly one of the top 25 in the genre's history and worthy of reexamination by those uncertain of it's greatness.
White Zombie is a very old-fashioned film, undoubtedly. It contains a slow pace and largely hammy acting, but it also has an atmosphere and Gothic aura all it's own, and makes it unique among genre offerings. The film was lost for several decades, until rediscovery in the 1960s, where it was revived to mixed reviews. Most film historians agree that this is a pivotal horror film, however and it still ranks among the ten best of the zombie genre, and certainly within the 100 greatest of the horror film. For despite it's many flaws, it's a wondrous and haunting cinematic experience.
My personal exposure of this film came at a young age. White Zombie was one of the first horror films that I ever saw, actually. I was six years old and my Mom took me to our local Jamesway department store and I was allowed to pick out my weekly bargain movie(for when I was a good boy.) and I went through the bin and lifted a blue VHS tape out with a strange bearded fellow who looked like Count Dracula. I recognized the name LUGOSI, and the castle and the imagery suggested something I would like. I still remember how impatient I was at wanting to see this, since my mother had to get her car fixed at Sears, and the tape was in the car. When I got through that ordeal, I immediately put it on and discovered a new favorite horror film. I think this was the film that made me a Lugosi fan, frankly, for while I have always loved all things Dracula, this was the one I reenacted and quoted the most as a kid. Those gestures and those lines are still with me today and i'm happy to see this film's fanbase growing steadier as the years go on, inspiring Rob Zombie to name his first band after the film, along with creating one of the most durable of film genres. Creaks and all, i'd happily regard this as a cinema classic and well worth the time of the horror fan, no matter the age.