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:
Victor Halperin directed this Pre-Code hair-raiser with the cleverness and precision of a great magician. It’s no surprise that Halperin and screenwriter Garnett Weston inadvertently created an entirely new genre: the zombie movie. This is not exactly the kind of zombie film we have a been accustomed to since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead hit theaters in 1968, but it is a great zombie movie nevertheless.
If I could summarize White Zombie in one word, I would say that the film is about “control” — all main characters are preoccupied with controlling the people around them.
The 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 girl via marriage. We all know that “control freaks” are the most insecure of all people and the characters’ insecurities make the story more interesting.
Made on a minuscule budget, White Zombie looks absolutely fantastic. The painted background and stylized sets give the movie an extremely strong German Expressionist vibe. The camera work is very stylish too. The”dissolve wipes” (aka transitions) anticipate the works of Akira Kurosawa and George Lucas. The film’s handling of the split-screen technique is way ahead of its time — Hollywood didn’t start using the technique until after Pillow Talk (1959) became a smash hit. All in all, a snazzy, trendy little movie.
Bela Lugosi gives one of his all-time best performances. He’s hypnotic as Legendre. His deliberately slow delivery and impenetrable Hungarian accent add the necessary touch of mystery to the movie. Lugosi’s hands movement — deftly parodied by Martin Landau in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood — is 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 framed within a context of male control. White Zombie deserves a place next to Universal’s classics Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Mummy. B&W, 67 minutes, Not Rated.