Film Review: White Zombie (1932)

Directed by Victor Halperin, written by Garnett Weston, and starring Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, John Harron, Joseph Cawthorn, and Robert Frazer.

"The script by Garnett Weston features a young couple in Haiti, Neil Parker and Madeleine Short, who have been invited by a casual acquaintance, Charles Beaumont, to come to his plantation to be married. Beaumont, however, is actually in love with Madeline and hopes to persuade her to become his wife instead. Rebuffed, he approaches local white Voodoo master 'Murder' Legendre to temporarily turn her into a zombie, have her declared dead, send Neil back to the States in mourning, then revive her so that he can woo her anew. Legendre, however, has his own plans for the young lady, and for Beaumont. She is ultimately rescued from living death by her faithful Neil and a missionary named Dr. Bruner. Bela Lugosi's character is never identified as 'Murder Legendre' in the film. He is referred to by name once, and then only as 'Murder'."

Despite what you may hear to the contrary, George A. Romero did not invent zombies. Not even close. Not Sam Raimi with The Evil Dead, not Edward Wood Jr. with Plan 9 from Outer Space, and not even Ubaldo Ragona with The Last Man on Earth (being based off of Richard Matheson's novel, I am Legend, from 1954, which was also the prime inspiration for Romero, and recently being remade with Will Smith instead of Vincent Price). Thirty-six years before Night of the Living Dead, this classic, essential gem was released onto an ill-equipped public. Only, the zombies in White Zombie are based upon the old voodoo belief, instead of lumbering brain-eaters or virus-infected rage victims. White Zombie is not only the first movie to feature the undead, but also the first to call them 'zombies'.

I have wanted to see this for years, but hadn't ever had the chance. This was especially hard considering: "The film was thought lost until its rediscovery in the 1960s. A court battle was fought between film distributor Frank Storace and the estate of Stanley Krellberg, the copyright owner of the film. Storace had wished to produce a restored version of the film but the estate refused him access to original footage in their possession. Storace gave up the court battle and did not win his access to his original footage."


Definitely one of the defining features that helped raise White Zombie to cult status was its full musical score, which is something even Dracula and Frankenstein didn't have only one year before. White Zombie even inspired Rob Zombie to name his first band after it. This is also one of Bela Lugosi's defining roles, which he reportedly did for a mere $800. Lugosi's charisma is second to none, even to this day.

The acting is great all around, done in a time when acting and dialog held the movie together, before action, special effects, and CGI. Some claim Madge Bellamy's performance as the 'white zombie' was stale and wooden. I find this ironic, considering she is playing the living dead. I thought she did just fine as the first silver screen zombie. One of the key aspects in the movie is atmosphere. It's all about cinematography and subtlety in this one, and it makes for a memorable film. It's ancient history now, but more relevant than 95% of every other zombie movie made. I've posted the entire film below, found at YouTube, which is free under public domain by an expired copyright.

Best quote: "Before we get through with this thing we may uncover sins that even the Devil would be ashamed of."

No comments: