The first zombie feature was an independent based heavily on the actual Haitian legend—a legend which, in the present zombie-haunted era, has been forgotten by (or remains unknown to) most fans. White Zombie stars Bela Lugosi, features sets pirated from more famous pictures, and it set the tone for all future pre-George A. Romero zombie movies. While far from perfect, it’s worth seeing, in order to understand what a zombie was, prior to the Night of the Living Dead.
As we countdown to The Walking Dead‘s mid-third-season finale, we offer White Zombie up as our Weekend Review.
Title: White Zombie
Cast, Crew, and Other Info:
Directed by Victor Helperin
Written by Garnett Weston, with elements taken from William Seabrook.
Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre
Madge Bellamy as Madeline Short Parker
John Harron as Neil Parker
Joseph Cawthorn as Dr. Bruner
Robert Frazer as Charles Beaumont
Brandon Hurst as Silver
George Burr Macannan as Von Gelder Zombie
Frederick Peters as Chauvin Zombie
Clarence Muse as driver
Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb.
A couple, honeymooning in Haiti, encounter an evil sorcerer who uses the walking dead as henchmen and slave labour. Our heroes are not warned about the dangers posed by zombies—they’re told to beware the living men who revive the dead.
The plot intensifies when the zombie-master turns our heroine (Apparently, we care less about all of those other zombified people).
The film has a purity of concept, and even beats The Serpent and the Rainbow to the possible scientific explanation for zombies, by decades.
Zombies as a metaphor for slavery and imperialism couldn’t be more obvious, though the film keeps putting it aside for its main plot. We even have Legendre’’ fear that the zombies, if they get their souls back, will tear him apart—a better ending that what we actually get.
While Lugosi wields a certain sinister power, the film’s acting goes melodramatically over the top, even for an era still dominated by actors who had learned their craft in small theatres and silent films. Hollywood took a while learning what acting developed for those genres sounds like when the mic and camera come close.
Originality: 3/6 It’s the original zombie flick, though its makers borrowed elements from William Seabrook’s The Magic Island and an earlier story by the screenwriter.
Effects: 2/6 The effects are low-budget, even for the time. The matte shots are theatrical but obviously artificial; others, including Willis O’Brien, were doing more impressive matte shots during this era. The horror make-up comes right out of the stage and silent era.
The film makes fascinating and often effective use of obscure music.
Story: 4/6 It’s a bit choppy, but they have scripted a suspenseful picture. Despite the anti-slavery and anti-imperialist messages, the film is not free of racist elements. This should not surprise anyone, given that we’re talking about a low-budget Hollywood production from 1932, but it’s worth noting.
Emotional Response: 4/6 This isn’t as well-made a picture as Dracula, but it’s creepier.
Overall: 5/6 It’s the first zombie feature, one of the few famous zombie films before Romero, and it does have excellent atmosphere. Rob Zombie considers this one of his favorite films; the fact may or may not recommend it to you.
In total, White Zombie receives 25/42.