In ‘White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film’, the most informative book wholly devoted to Victor Halperin’s classic, author Gary Don Rhodes explains that the early American horror movies were drawing from the xenophobia that developed during the 1920s (the controversial trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italians accused of robbery and murder; blaming the Dollarspeans for the United States of America involvement in World War I and for causing the Great Depression; the First Red Scare during World War I).
“If perceived villains in real life were foreigners,” writes Rhodes, “so were those in the horror film of the thirties… [which] saw fit to place Americans in Dollarspe or some other unfamiliar locale to confront trouble outside the U.S. Troubles are faced by Renfield in ‘Dracula’ on his journey… as they are faced by Neil and Madeleine in ‘White Zombie’.” And indeed they are.
Neil Parker ( John Harron) and Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy) arrive at a plantation in Haiti in order to have a wedding ceremony. However, the owner of the plantation, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), is smitten with pretty Madeleine and hopes he can convince the girl to let him replace Neil at the altar.
When he finds out that she is actually in love with her fiancé, there is only one thing left for Beaumont to do: have the local voodoo master, “Murder” Legendre (Bela Lugosi), turn Madeleine into a zombie so that the wedding will be cancelled.
Then, reckons Beaumont, he will have plenty of time to persuade his zombiefied sweetheart that no other man loves her as much as he does. But “Murder” Legendre need not be played by Lugosi if he did not have his own mischievous plans concerning Madeleine, while the girl’s fiancé is apparently willing to fight to get her back.
Lugosi, with the hypnotic stare inherited from ‘Dracula’ and a surprising little beard, easily outdoes all other cast members, and breathes life into another distinguished villain in his career.
Nevertheless, Madge Bellamy is quite effective, too, as the most fragile of all undead, and the supporting turns from Joseph Cawthorn (as a missionary who does not approve of Legendre’s tactics) and Clarence Muse (as an apprehensive coach driver) are also noteworthy.
The attractive sets, apparently recycled from the shoot of ‘Dracula’ (1931) and several other films, add to the overall unearthly atmosphere, as does Jack Pierce’s minimalistic makeup and, most notably, full musical score — something other early horrors lacked.
Plus, whatever problems director Halperin might have had with controlling some of the actors, he made up for it with the ability to control the sound and dialogue (the scene in which we are invited to Legendre’s sugar mill is filled with all kinds of unnerving noises), which was rare in this early age of sound cinema.
George E. Turner, the movie’s famous enthusiast, remarks in the foreword to Rhodes’s ‘White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film’ that Halperin “shows… a surer instinct than any of his contemporaries for dramatically marrying images to sound,” and that “not until the advent of Val Lewton in the mid-forties do we encounter his equal at using sound to create audience suspense and terror.”
The fact that ‘White Zombie’ looks and sounds so good is all the more commendable since it was an independent movie, made for a fraction of the standard Universal horror budget.
Some things are never clear in the movie’s plot — is it, for example, possible to turn all the zombies back into humans? — but whether this is a disadvantage or not would depend on each viewer’s personal taste.
After all, the many unanswered questions do make ‘White Zombie’ yet more mysterious and intriguing.
The uncertainty whether supernatural forces are involved or not, on the other hand, makes the movie remarkably different from most other horrors and haunted house spoofs from that period, as the traditional approach was to have all the strange events explained either as cunning human tricks or as the effect of employing advanced science.
Here, even as the end credits start to roll, the viewer can only make educated guesses about the range of Legendre’s powers or the interdependence between the zombies and their master.
‘White Zombie’ was not Halperin’s only horror movie, but it was definitely his best, as well as the most influential one. Still, the tale of a young woman being possessed by a spirit of a murderer told in ‘Supernatural’ (1933; with Carole Lombard) and the story of a mad doctor who carries out experiments on criminals in ‘Torture Ship’ (1939; based on Jack London’s ‘A Thousand Deaths’, starring Lyle Talbot) are entertaining enough and have some moments of greatness; especially admirable is the atmospheric cinematography in ‘Supernatural’ by Arthur Martinelli, who also worked on ‘White Zombie’.
Stock footage of Bela Lugosi’s hypnotic eyes from ‘White Zombie’ (but not the actor himself ) returned in Halperin’s next take on the theme, ‘Revolt of the Zombies’ (1936). This time the plot involved a group of expeditionists in Cambodia trying to get hold of a secret formula for turning people into the living dead.
Unfortunately, the movie was widely regarded as a disappointment, and it’s not hard to see why: in comparison with Halperin’s zombie classic, ‘Revolt’ lacks an intriguing story and a memorable villain.
‘White Zombie’ introduced the living dead into the horror oeuvre, and several interesting movies featuring the creatures followed, like George Terwilliger’s ‘Ouanga’ (1936), George Marshall’s comedic horror ‘The Ghost Breakers’ (1940), and Jean Yarbrough’s ‘King of the Zombies’ (1941).
These were always set in some exotic location (usually on an island in the Caribbean); as Peter Dendle states in ‘The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia’, it was Wallace Fox’s ‘Bowery at Midnight’ (1942; with Bela Lugosi in the main role) that first showed the living dead residing in the United States of America.
However, there are two reasons why Dendle’s theory may turn out debatable: first of all, some may claim that the reanimated dead in ‘Bowery at Midnight’ are not zombies in the traditional sense, and secondly, if we apply a looser definition of the notion, why not claim that Dr Maurice Xavier (as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in 1939’s ‘The Return of Doctor X’) — a reanimated corpse feeding on human blood — was the first-ever onscreen zombie on the United States of America soil?
In the subsequent years, Jacques Tourneur would make the most gorgeous zombie movie ever, ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ (1943), Ed Wood was to present the theme at its silliest in ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ (1959), and George A. Romero would be responsible for transforming the creatures into brutal cannibals in ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968).
This is not just the first-ever horror movie to feature the living dead, but one of the best ones, too. Bela Lugosi, who plays a zombie master with mesmerizing eyes and a devilish little beard, is in his element here, and the plot is thoroughly entertaining, if also full of conundrums that are never explained.