White Zombie

WZ1

In Haiti there is a legend that a man with power can bring people under his control by turning them into a zombie, and it seems Murder Legendre has the power to do so, a power he uses on young bride to be Madeline Short before she can be married, but the man who would have been her husband won’t rest until he gets her back.

White Zombie, the movie that some consider to be the first major zombie film ever made. How does one judge such an iconic film? Honestly, that’s how. Too often the classics get a pass at critical viewing simply because we call them the classics. Just look at Gone with the Wind, it’s a boring movie that glorifies an American South that never existed, and oh yeah, and a guy wants to marry his cousin, let’s not leave that part out, but it’s considered one of the greatest movies ever made. Why? Because it’s a classic. I get nostalgia, I really do, you’re talking to someone who still watches classic Star Trek episodes and thinks Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules is one of the greatest shows of the 90’s, but I’ll still be the first to cop to the myriad amount of problems with either show, or any of the absolutely atrocious 60’s and 70’s horror films that I adore (I’m looking right at you Attack of the Killer Tomatoes you cheeky bastard). A truly great addition to cinematic history should be able to stand the test of time on its own two feet without having to lean on the “But I’m a classic,” excuse. There are a lot of older films that have withstood decades, hell, go watch the 1922 silent Nosferatu with Max Schreck, almost a hundred years old and it’s still one of the creepiest films I’ve ever seen, so an older film can definitely still be considered a treasure without modern effects, color, or even sound for that matter, but giving any film a pass just because it’s old isn’t right nor fair to the viewer. A film should be judged on its own merit, regardless of its age. If it’s a great movie when it’s made, it’ll be a great movie twenty, thirty, or even seventy years afterward, cinema is an art form just like any other, and as it is with paintings, books, or paper origami, time means little to its value (and I’m not counting monetary value, screw you art yuppies). With my peace now stated, how about I stop prattling on and review the damn movie.

Our Haitian Voodoo film begins in, well in Haiti, where Neil Parker and his young bride Madeline Short are set to be married at the home of Neil’s future employer Charles Beaumont. On the way to Beaumont’s house they are stopped by a funeral procession that are burying their dead on the road itself to prevent body snatchers from taking the corpses, the logic being that more traffic around the buried bodies means less chances for people to come and steal them later. When the driver of their coach is forced to stop, a strange man appears out of the darkness, slowly walking up to Madeline and stealing her scarf, a grouping of dead eyed men trailing him not far behind. The driver is clearly terrified of this strange man, urging the horses to take off at breakneck speed to get them away from him and take them safely to Beaumont’s estate. Once there they meet Dr. Bruner who urges them to flee back to wherever they came from and leave Haiti far behind, but the excited Parker can’t ignore the job opportunity he’s been given. What the soon to be wed man doesn’t understand is that Beaumont has become obsessed with Madeline and will do anything to have her for himself. He’s even enlisted the help of mad doctor Murder Legendre, the same man who earlier stole Madeline’s scarf, in obtaining the woman’s love. Legendre gives him a zombie elixir, promising that he will have Madeline only by turning her into a mindless slave, something Beaumont doesn’t relish, but when his pleas for her love fall on deaf ears, he slips the elixir into flower he gives her, and Madeline appears to die before her wedding. After her apparent death, Beaumont, Legendre, and the dead eyed men from earlier, his own personal zombies, retrieve her body from the burial chamber, the elixir having turned her into yet another zombie. A distraught, and somewhat drunk, Parker goes to mourn for his wife but finds her tomb empty. He enlists the help of Dr. Bruner in locating the missing body, and Bruner tells him the legend of the zombie, warning him of the dangers of facing Legendre. Meanwhile Beaumont prepares to settle in with his prize but doesn’t realize that Legendre has ulterior motives, motives that might just damn them all.

WZ3

{Neil Parker won’t be able to face this zombie menace by himself}

Before I start the review proper I feel it’s important to mention that The Halperins did not quite come up with the idea for White Zombie on their own. The book The Magic Island by William B. Seabrook about Haitian Voodoo and the play Zombie by Kenneth S. Webb were the main inspiration behind White Zombie. The Magic Island had brought the idea of voodoo zombies into the American consciousness, garnering an interest in magically controlled corpses brought back to life by a Voodoo priest or bokor, and Webb’s play Zombie premiered three years after that. The Halperins borrowed heavily from both sources, Webb thought rather heavily when it came to his play. Webb sued the Halperins over the copyright but lost the court battle in the end, allowing them to continue as planned with the distribution of their film, though some say revenge would come later after they lost a court battle over rights pertaining to Revolt of the Zombies and their ability to call it a sequel to White Zombie. Sadly, Webb’s play was never published so no record of it remains to be read, with that being the case it’s impossible to tell exactly how close White Zombie is to Zombie, but I’m not usually one to believe in coincidences so the timing has me thinking White Zombie was fairly close, close enough that playwright Webb felt like he had an actual case, but there is no way to be certain which is a shame since if Webb is the true man behind the introduction of zombies to cinema he’s due more credit than he will ever receive. Why bring any of this convoluted mess up? Because though the Halperins deserve a fair bit of respect for being early pioneers in filming techniques that would eventually become standard, the introduction of voodoo, and particularly the voodoo zombie, was not theirs alone, but a collaborative effort from a few different sources, not to mention the actual people who practiced it as their religion of choice. They simply brought it to the silver screen. Credit where credit is due after all.

WZ6

{I was going to make a joke here but one does not joke about Voodoo}

Okay, so who did what aside, how does the film stack up after eighty plus years? It actually holds up pretty well despite a little bit of hammy overacting. That’s the only real drawback for White Zombie, the actors can go a bit overboard in their performances, chief among them Legendre himself, actor Bela Lugosi who regretted only taking a small amount, around five to eight hundred dollars, for the role. Don’t get me wrong, Lugosi is great in this for the most part, he comes across as rather imposing and frightful, owning every scene he appears in, but he does ham it up more than a bit. There are even many scenes where he seems to be channeling William…Shatner….before…he…was even a toddler. He pauses after every other word, dragging out his lines in ways that at times seemed comical. He still comes across as a daunting figure, enforcing his will on the screen every time his presence is required, but his drawn out way of speaking his lines and his sometimes cheesy way of overdoing it when it comes to acting have him walking a thin line between a humorous caricature and a seriously frightening witch doctor. He’s by far not the only one that over does it when it comes to the acting though, pretty much every single one of them has issues with over emphasis when it comes to their characters. It isn’t absolutely horrendous by a long shot, at times it even seems to fit with the film, but it does keep one from taking it seriously. Which is a shame because there is one group that manages to be deadly serious and extremely terrifying, the voodoo zombies controlled by Murder Legendre. The actors portraying them do a terrific job giving a dead eyed stare that portrays absolutely no emotion whatsoever, as if whatever used to be behind those eyes has truly died, leaving behind just a shell set to be controlled by the one who deadened those eyes in the first place. They are genuinely creepy in the way they lack anything remotely human, coming across almost more dead than their undead counterparts would be over thirty years later. Chief among them is Legendre’s right hand zombie Chauvin, played by Frederick Peters, who plays the part so well I would shudder at the idea of meeting him on the street. It was a truly amazing performance.

WZ2

{Would you want to mess with this guy?}

The zombies aren’t just portrayed well by the actors, they’re also portrayed brutally by the film itself. Understand that these aren’t the zombies you’re used to now a days, these creatures are still very much human, they’ve simply had their minds erased by whatever means Legendre employs to turn them into his slaves, but they are very much still alive, though whether or not they feel pain is another matter entirely. I would hope not being that they are shown to have little value as far as their lives are concerned, at least to the mad witch doctor that created them. Legendre has completely robbed them of their will and uses them to intimidate or kill anyone in his way, either that or he works them to death at his sugar mill, using them until they have no further use to him. Even the zombies no longer seem to care about their own lives, one is shown falling into a massive grinder to his death, but not only does he not seem to care for his life, but none of the other zombie show any concern either, letting the man fall into what will certainly be a gruesome death. The one thing I was uncertain of was how exactly Legendre controlled them. He looked to have some kind of telepathic link that let him order them around using only his mind, replacing their will with his own, but the substance that turns them into zombies is shown to be an elixir, so I didn’t understand why an elixir would give him telepathic control of his zombie slaves. Then again, I’m probably asking too many questions.

WZ4

{Only slightly better than working at Walmart}

As far as effects go I don’t think I have to tell you not to expect anything even close to today’s standards, well not today’s standards since most of today’s standards mean lots and lots of CGI, but the standards of something like Return of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead or any of the others movies about zombies that have “Dead” in the title (I think there might have been a “Night” one in there somewhere). That being said, you can expect the zombie makeup to be exactly what White Zombie needed, nothing too major, just something to help that dead eyed expression that makes them such frightening bastards. The eeriest effect by far throughout the entire movie is the picture of Bela Lugosi’s eyes superimposed over the screen whenever he is set to telepathically order his zombies to do his bidding. No matter the decade the man has an unsettling gaze that seems be so sinister and yet so hypnotic at the same time. It was perfect to offset the emotionless look of the zombies Lugosi’s eyes where controlling.

WZ5

{*Shivers*}

While White Zombie has definitely aged over the years, I see it as a flick that has held its own throughout the last eighty plus years. It’s not the best zombie film ever made but it is a great one that will give any zombie buff, new or old, a look back at where the genre started.

 

The Undead Review

 

Directed By: Victor Halperin (Revolt of the Zombies, Buried Alive)

Starring: Bela Lugosi (Dracula, The Devil Bat), Madge Bellamy (Charlie Chan in London, The Daring Yong Man), Robert Frazer (Black Dragons, The Dawn Express), John Harron (Daredevil Drivers, The Invisible Menace)

Written By: Garnett Weston (The Old Fashioned Way, Supernatural)

Released By: Edward Halperin Productions, Victor Halperin Productions, and United Artists

Release Year: 1932

Release Type: Theatrical Release

MPAA Rating: Pre MPAA, Passed Rating

Rotting Heads: 4 Heads Out of 5

About The Undead Review

When I was alive I was an asshole and after I died remained pretty much the same, if not a little worse. You’d think becoming a member of the walking dead would mellow a person out, no more worrying about awkward small talk with people, no more having to be politically correct, and the entire world is your upright, bipedal buffet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun as hell to be a zombie, just somewhat irritating at times, especially those times you have to watch a lame movie or read a lame book. Thankfully, when I am forced to watch these films or read those books, I’ve got places like The Undead Review to bitch and moan to my heart’s content. {When he’s not devouring the living or sinking his teeth into a good film The Undead Review (Andy Taylor) spends his time writing his own stories or hunting down the paranormal. Oh, and did we mention his blind dog once saved the world?)
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