From Whence They All First Crept, Crawled and Staggered: ‘White Zombie’

[11 February 2013]

By Marco Lanzagorta

The legendary Bela Lugosi is best remembered for his memorable dramatic role in the 1931 version of Dracula. Arguably, Lugosi playing the part of the ghoulish count is one of the quintessential images that characterize the series of horror films produced by Universal Studios during the ‘30s. And as such, Lugosi will forever be associated to the big kahuna of blood sucking monsters.

But truth be told, Dracula was not the best film in Lugosi’s oeuvre. Indeed, Dracula boils down to an extremely thinned out version of Stoker’s book that suffers from unimaginative visual compositions and an awkward use of sound. In contrast, White Zombie (1932) is a much more elaborated film that dared to explore what at the time were sophisticated visual effects, novel frame transitions, and detailed production design concepts.

Furthermore, White Zombie is often regarded as the first zombie film ever made. As such, this movie has an important niche in the history of the horror genre. This flick is crucial to understanding the evolution of the zombie as a horror archetype in popular culture, and allows the viewer to appreciate the revolutionary deconstruction of the undead conducted by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead.

As with many horror films of that period, White Zombie boils down to a love story embroiled with overt supernatural overtones. The film takes place in Haiti, and we are informed that Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy) and her fiancé Neil Parker (John Harron) are planning to get married at the plantation owned by the dishonest Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). However, Charles is deeply in love with Madeleine, but she plainly refuses his advances. As a consequence, Charles seeks the help of Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi), the local voodoo witch doctor. 

Arguably, the main highlight of White Zombie is the lengthily sequence that shows how Legendre’s sugar cane mill is entirely operated by an army of zombies. Even though these zombies are not the rotten flesh eating monsters from Romero’s films, their empty eyes and mechanical motions are creepy and unsettling to say the least. In addition, the dramatic black and white cinematography that cleverly manipulates light and shadows is strikingly reminiscent of the German expressionistic films of the ‘20s.

The nefarious Legendre advises Charles to turn Madeleine into a mindless zombie that will obey any order from his master. After some hesitation, Charles agrees and poisons Madeleine with the zombie elixir. Taken for dead, Madeleine is buried in a crypt. But soon thereafter Legendre reanimates her. When Neil finds out the truth, he recruits the help of a missionary and embarks on a dangerous mission to kill Legendre and rescue Madeleine.

Unfortunately, with exception of Lugosi, the cast is just terrible. Made shortly after the development of sound in motion pictures, most of the male actors in White Zombie continue to use exaggerated body expressions to enhance the narrative. And on the opposite side, the facial gestures of Madeleine are completely inexpressive, even before she is turned into a zombie. Thus, the intended impact of showcasing Madeleine’s zombification is utterly lost. Really, there is not much difference between the living and the undead Madeleine.

Lugosi, on the other hand, truly shines playing the character of Murder Legendre. Wearing a light, but nonetheless creepy makeup by the fabulous Jack Pierce, Lugosi has a terrifying presence in the film (let us recall that Pierce was the creative mastermind behind the enduring look that characterizes the most famous monster movies made by Universal Studios: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man). Furthermore, Lugosi’s heavy Hungarian accent, along with his fascinating “zombie conjuring grip”, provides Legendre with an unbearable sense of decadent evil.

Alas, White Zombie is unable to hide its low budget nature. The film was completely shot in the Universal Studios back lot and in the famous Bronson Caverns (where countless of Poverty Row horror and science fiction movies have been made). While the production design of Legendre’s sugar cane mill is top notch, the cemetery looks fake and right out of an Ed Wood film set.

Thanks to Kino Lorber, White Zombie has recently been released in a beautiful Blu-ray disc presentation. While far from perfect, this movie has never looked better in home video. The only meaningful extra feature is an insightful audio commentary by film historian Frank Thompson. In a move that really boggles the mind, Kino Lorber has also included the entire un-restored film (who in his right mind would like to watch the entire un-restored version of the film? especially when the restored version is available in the exact same disc!).

To my disappointment, this edition does not include the extraordinary bonus content that appeared in the now out of print DVD released by the Roan group back in 2000. Most missed is the audio commentary by Gary Don Rhodes, the undisputed expert in everything that has to do with White Zombie and author of the thorough White Zombie: An Anatomy of a Horror Film (2001). Even so, the current Kino Lorber Blu-ray version will be a welcomed addition to the collection of devoted classic horror fans.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/168126-white-zombie/