White Zombie (1932)
“She was not dead… not alive.”
Director: Victor Halperin
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn
Synopsis: A young man turns to a witch doctor to lure the woman he loves away from her fiance, but instead turns her into a zombie slave.
Victor Halperin’s White Zombie has acquired something of a cult following since it resurfaced in the 1960s after long believed to be lost, and like anyone or anything else that has been starved of daylight for so long it looks pretty battered these days. You’d think that if it was so highly regarded by so many someone out there would have financed a restoration, but sadly anyone wanting to see the movie has to sit through a dark and scratchy version that detracts from the enjoyment of a movie that, it has to be said, struggles to be worthy of the praise it has received.
White Zombie begins with lovebirds Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron — The Roaring Twenties) in a carriage in Haiti driven by an uncredited Clarence Muse (Double Indemnity, My Favorite Brunette) which finds its way blocked by a funeral taking place in the middle of the road. While they wait for the funeral to clear, a sinister man with seriously out-of-control eyebrows whom we will later learn is Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi — The Devil Bat, Bowery at Midnight), emerges from the darkness with a handful of his favourite zombies in tow. Legendre clearly takes something of a shine to young Madeline and even snatches the scarf from around her neck when the carriage gets under way once more. The young couple are on their way to the plantation home of Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer — The King Murder), where they are to be wed at his invitation. But Beaumont has an ulterior motive for inviting the couple to his home: he too loves Madeline and is intent on talking her out of marrying Neil. In fact, Beaumont is so determined to have Madeline that he strikes a deal with Legendre, who gives him a small potion which, when consumed or inhaled by Madeline will make her vulnerable to Legendre’s voodoo magic and enable him to make her appear to be dead. Once she’s under the spell and a sham funeral is staged, the idea is that Neil will go home, leaving the way clear for Beaumont to woo Madeline after Legendre revives her. Little does Beaumont know that Legendre, too, has designs on Madeline…
It’s a silly plot, no doubt about it, but that’s what adds to the charm of ancient movies like this. And to be fair to Halperin, he does create some marvellously atmospheric shots and makes use of some impressive sets which were apparently leased from Universal Studios. More of a problem than the state of the plot, however, is the acting from most members of the cast. Lugosi was never a convincing actor, largely because of his heavy accent, but he’s particularly poor here, even though he looks the part. It is difficult to tell whether it’s Legendre’s mesmerising gaze that puts victims under his spell or those fake eyebrows he wears, though. Lugosi at least had some screen presence to help him overcome his deficiencies in the acting department, but Bellamy and Harron are both awful, and the performances here give us a major clue as to why both of them were relegated to uncredited parts like ‘party guest’ and ‘reporter’ by the end of the 1930s. To be fair to Bellamy, her character spends most of her time in a zombie trance which doesn’t really give her much chance to test her acting range, but Harron is called upon to run the gamut of emotions and doesn’t so much stumble over them as fall flat on his face each time he’s called to emote.
It’s creaky and tired, and at just 69 minutes it feels way too long, but White Zombie does nevertheless boast some unique touches. A scene in which Legendre studies a victim in the unfortunate position of knowing exactly what is happening to them as they very slowly undergo the transformation from living being to zombie is particularly effective. Legendre is even insensitive enough to sit opposite his victim as he whittles the effigy with which he will control the victim’s undead body. There’s also a terrific scene in which Beaumont is guided through Legendre’s sugar mill, in which the workers are blank-faced zombies, all of whom look realistically scary for a film that’s so old. Horror movie buffs should give White Zombie a go, but others might find the slow pace a little too much to handle.
(Reviewed 26th July 2014)