White Zombie receives the distinction of being the first zombie movie ever made. It does introduce zombies differently from what we know today, but the entire film is an effective example of atmospheric horror. Bela Lugosi plays a more murderous character, conveniently named Murder Legendre, than he did in Dracula, and the other actors all lend sufficient talent, but it’s all about atmosphere. The horror is there due to the location, and the ominous foreshadowing created by the side characters. The plot does feel a bit light, but I do recommend seeing this considering its place in film history.
Wealthy plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) lusts for the beautiful Madeline (Madge Bellamy). The problem is Madeline is set to be married to Neil (John Harron). Charles makes a deal with witch doctor Murder Legendre (Lugosi) to turn Madeline into a mindless zombie who will forever love him. When Charles discovers Madeline’s lack of affection, he wishes to reverse the process while Neil goes on a journey to win Madeline back for himself.
I used to get White Zombie confused with I Walked with a Zombie (which I reviewed for Halloween in 2012). It’s not that difficult to get the two confused as both deal with voodoo and mindless “zombies.” I wonder how much of that latter film was inspired by this? The zombies here are not the mindless, brain-hungry ones we know; they’re more emotionless automatons. They certainly are frightening upon first view with their vacant eyes. Actress Madge Bellamy was born to play the zombie in here as her big eyes perfectly convey the lack of emotion. That might sound like a dig towards her acting, and maybe it is because her role really isn’t much. I did find her to be beautiful, in that 1930s horror film way, and she does well in the role…it’s just not a stretch for an actress.
The zombies here also aren’t defined enough, which also isn’t surprising since zombies had never been dealt with on-screen. Madeline and the other zombies have no emotion, and those who own the zombies force them to do manual labor. One could see a comment on slavery being made. To me, I just kept noticing how smart Madeline is and what she’s retained despite being brain-dead. She still knows how to walk and play the piano! She has no emotions, and can’t seem to communicate, but knows how to play piano. Defining the dos and don’ts might have aided the audience in why these zombies are so dangerous, and what power the controller has. There’s also a moment where Lengrade has a voodoo doll of Madeline that he starts burning with a candle. Madeline simply swoons, but wouldn’t/ shouldn’t she be mimicking being burned? Again, I think this could have been helped by explaining the logic within the narrative.
The atmosphere here is on par with that of I Walked with a Zombie. The roads are foggy, and everyone who resides in the town is shifty. The immortal line from White Zombie is the carriage driver saying “Zombies! The living dead” and that line sticks with you. You never feel completely comfortable in the setting, especially once Lugosi arrives. White Zombie is his show entirely, and I actually liked him better here than in Dracula (although I think they use the same castle from Dracula for Beaumont’s hiding spot). Obviously, it wouldn’t be a Lugosi movie without his distinctive eyes. His eyes burn through the film. At a few points they’re actually embedded into other scenes, making you feel as if his eyes are tearing through the celluloid and controlling everything. There’s also a similar zoom of the camera into his eyes that fans might remember from Dracula. When he’s not standing around unnerving the audience he has a distinct glee about events. When he gives Beaumont the potion to turn Madeline into a zombie there’s a look of happiness about what’s going to happen, almost as if Beaumont has damned his own soul and Lengarde will be the collector.
The other actors are good, but nothing makes them stand out. I mentioned Madge Bellamy is good at playing a zombie, and the other actors are similarly one-note. Frazer is the lovesick jerk who grows a conscious by the end, while Harron as Neil Parker is funny as he’s just a bland character trying to transcend being so bland. When he takes note of the attraction between Madeline and Beaumont, he expresses his anger by crossing his arms and furrowing his brow like a kid. The audience is waiting for Lugosi, and I’m not surprised that the other actors aren’t given a chance to outshine him; it’s that the sharp contrast in talent is noticeable.
White Zombie is a fun movie, and a highlight of 1930s horror. I’m a taste shocked that it’s not up there with the Universal monster films, or the work of Jacques Tourneur as it seems to have inspired the latter director heavily. I recommend seeing it, and it appears to be easily found in the public domain (quality varies wildly, of course).
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.