White Zombie (1932)

Image Source: Wrong Side of the Art

Synopsis: Innocent beauty Madeline (Madge Bellamy) arrives on the island of Haiti to marry her fiancé Neil (John Harron), but on their way to the ceremony they become aware of a sinister plot. An evil voodoo charmer named Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) is stealing the corpses of recently-deceased natives and reanimating them into zombie slaves to work in his sugar mill. Madeline and Neil continue on to their destination, but soon the owner of the plantation where they intend to be married (Robert Frazer) finds himself in love with Madeline, and willing to go to any length to claim her as his bride — including making a pact with Murder Legendre he may soon regret.

Directed by Victor Halperin as an independent film, distributed by United Artists and filmed on Universal sets left over from other horror movies, White Zombie was the very first feature-length zombie movie and is now considered a bona fide Horror Classic, despite not doing particularly well with critics upon its initial release.

Bleh! Cola: Taste the Flavor of BLEH!!!

I don’t quite know what to say about this film, honestly. I want to like it, really I do. Bela Lugosi is his usual marvelous self, but this time with the added bonus of ridiculous facial hair and Crazy Eyebrows. This is credited as the first film to use the theme of Haitian voodoo mind control, a motif I love in later horror films such as Val Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur). The main problem with this film is that it was made in 1932 during the transitional period between silent and sound films, when everyone who used to be good at directing just flat-out forgot how to make movies. You can’t blame them, really; it would be like saying to filmmakers today, “Alright, guys, great effort, but now every single shot in your films must be taken from an airplane from an altitude of at least 30,000 feet.” The results would be awkward, no doubt, and it would take them a long time to find their footing. However, cutting as much slack as one possibly can, there are only so many allowances one can make for these transitional early-’30s films before the enormous effort becomes not worth the meager payoff. Being a Tod Browning fangirl (didn’t know we exist? HERE I AM), I have a lot of experience with this problem — trying to convince somebody watching Dracula (1931) that, no really, he was awesome in the ’20s. But even knowing this doesn’t make the long awkward silences and uneven dialog in Dracula any easier to bear — and with White Zombie, I have even less of an incentive to try.

Ever since you became a zombie you’re just no fun anymore.

The main thing one notices about transitional films is how quiet they are, letting long expanses of time slip by without so much as a footstep or sound effect. Since we’re used to either full-force sound films or silent films with orchestral accompaniment, this makes transitional movies one of the most difficult types of film to actually pay attention to. White Zombie actually does a little better than its contemporaries in this respect, using a fair bit of appropriately-spooky background music in some spots, to satisfying effect. Even still, there were parts where I felt like I’d have to lock myself in an empty white room (preferably without any interesting corners to stare into) in order to get me to pay attention to what was happening on screen. This problem was compounded tenfold by the extremely poor quality of the entire audio track. I own this film on crappy dollar-store DVD (as part of my epic FIFTY HORROR MOVIES FOR $20!!! box set), but I thought I’d watch it on Netflix, since their streaming quality is usually pretty good. Even still, with my television volume literally at the absolute maximum, I could only make out about 20% of what anybody in this film was saying. If a better dub exists somewhere, I apologize, because I know it seriously taints this review to not have been able to hear the movie. Again, you can’t blame a film for being old, but I also can’t appreciate dialog I cannot understand.

Fine, keep the unibrow, but just LEMME PLUCK THOSE TWO LITTLE HAIRS!

What this film does successfully achieve is atmosphere. It’s a dark, creepy movie, skillfully utilizing some beautifully haunting sets (albeit “borrowed” from other, presumably better films). Halperin’s use of close-ups and blurred focus is also masterful, and makes one sort of yearn for this to have been made as a silent, so that we could just focus on upping the drama of the cinematography and not have to worry about silly things like dialog or blocking to conceal the microphones. (In fact, I’m pretty sure White Zombie is in the public domain — anyone care to re-cut it as a silent?) The visuals are striking and the acting… is acting. The plot is spooky. Madge Bellamy is nice to look at. There are many closeup shots of various and sundry comical eyebrows. Overall I think it’s a good movie to project onto a blank wall in the background at your rockin’ Halloween party, but if you actually expect people to sit down and watch it, you might soon find quite a few guests with sudden excuses to leave early.

White Zombie (1932) – 1.5/5 stars

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  1. Kim (the zombie variety)

     /  November 30, 2010

    Your captions crack me up. As do those two little hairs.

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