A young couple, Madeleine Parker (Madge Bellamy, Charlie Chan in London) and her fiancé Neil Parker (John Harron, The Crowd Roars), agree to get married at a friend’s Haitian plantation. The friend, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer, The Vampire Bat), is secretly in love with Madeleine, and with the help of a witch doctor, Legendre (Bela Lugosi, Dracula), Beaumont plans to stop the wedding at any cost.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“They are not men, madame. They are dead bodies!”
Victor Halperin directed this Pre-Code hair-raiser with the cleverness and precision of a great magician. Halperin, with the help of screenwriter Garnett Weston, also inadvertently created an entirely new genre: the zombie movie. While quite different from George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, this is still a great zombie.
1968’s Night of the Living Dead has been interpreted as a metaphor for America’s class hierarchy. White Zombie is essentially about “control” — most characters are preoccupied with controlling the people around them.
The evil voodoo master proudly brags about turning important members of the community into mindless slaves. The plantation owner wants to “own” the woman he loves. Even the well-meaning fiancé wants to “control” his girlfriend via marriage. We all know that “control freaks” are the most insecure of all people and the characters’ various insecurities make the story very interesting.
Made on a minuscule budget, White Zombie looks absolutely fantastic. The painted background and stylized sets give the movie a strong German Expressionist vibe. The camera work is very stylish too. The “dissolve wipes” anticipate the works of Akira Kurosawa and George Lucas. The film’s handling of the split-screen technique is way ahead of its time. All in all, a snazzy, trendy little movie.
Bela Lugosi gives one of his all-time best performances. Lugosi’s deliberately slow delivery and impenetrable Hungarian accent add the necessary touch of mystery to the movie. The actor’s hand movements — deftly parodied by Martin Landau in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood — are particularly effective here. Lugosi is obviously working at a much higher level than the rest of the cast — it’s a truly fascinating performance.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
White Zombie is a delight from beginning to end. It was designed and shot in a highly imaginative manner. Being a Pre-Code production, the film has its share of naughty touches (I don’t want to spoil the surprises). It’s a great horror movie — White Zombie deserves a place next to Universal’s classics Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Mummy. B&W, 67 minutes, Not Rated.