DIRECTED BY: Victor Halperin
FEATURING: Bela Lugosi
PLOT: A Haitian plantation owner seeks the help of local witch doctor and zombie mogul
‘Murder’ Legendre (Bela Lugosi) to bewitch another man’s bride.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: White Zombie can send quite the uncanny chill down your spine and is well worth a look for those seeking to soak up some classic Gothic atmosphere, but its weird elements are too submerged for it to make the List.
COMMENTS: Although talkies had been around for five years when White Zombie came out, the film is suffused with the sensibility of a silent movie, with the machinations of mustachioed villains causing damsels in flapper bobs to daintily faint. The players still use the exaggerated facial expressions and physical gestures of actors used to conveying emotions by pantomime, and when they do speak, they over-inflect, as if concerned with projecting their words into the last rows of a theater. This mannered, operatic style, where the characters magnify their fear, grief, malice and wonder in an recognizable but unnatural way, plays right into Bela Lugosi’s larger-than-life persona. The Hungarian, here again the soul of suave degeneracy, dominates the proceedings in what may be the second best performance of his career. In an era where we’ve become used to completely naturalistic performances and sets, White Zombie‘s primitive aesthetic seems romantic and, yes, a little weird; when this stately style is wedded to such a stark good versus evil storyline, the results can be magical, if you allow yourself to fall under its spell. Even the grain in the picture, the hiss in the soundtrack, and the jumps where a few frames of film are missing add to the dreamlike effect. (Watching White Zombie, it’s easy to see how Guy Maddin became intoxicated with this era of film). The narrative holds few surprises, there are dry patches, and the action climax isn’t exactly a thrill ride. But White Zombie features many wonderfully disquieting moments that worm their way under your skin and make you squirm in your seat, including the Haitian funeral set to ancient African tribal chants and the damned souls powering the creaking mill wheel at Legendre’s sugar cane factory.
This was the first film to bring the Haitian idea of the zombie—a soulless, re-animated corpse brought to life by a combination of drugs and witchcraft—to the cinema. Lugosi, just a year off Dracula, was a hot horror commodity but a notoriously bad businessman: he only received $800 for the role of Legendre.
White Zombie is in the public domain and therefore can be found in many different DVD packages. The best picture comes from the restored Roan Group print (now released by Alpha Video). Although the source material used is not pristine, the best value is Mill Creek’s Horror Classics 50 Movie Pack Collection (also containing Carnival of Souls and several other worthwhile titles, along with some stunning losers like Creature from the Haunted Sea). White Zombie is also in the public domain and can be legally viewed or downloaded for free at the Internet Archive.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Contemporary critics found White Zombie childish, old-fashioned, and melodramatic. They might have allowed that it was also a Gothic fairy tale filled with traditional symbols, dreamlike imagery, echoes of Romanticism, and (probably unintentional) psychosexual imagery.”–Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films