Directed by: Victor Halperin | 67 minutes | horror | Actors: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Frazer, John Harron, Brandon Hurst, George Burr Macanan, Frederick Peters, Annette Stone, John Printz, Dan Crimmins, Claude Morgan, John Fergusson, Velma Gresham, Hans Joby, Clarence Muse
Edward Halperin Productions’ 1932 White Zombie is the first ever zombie movie. However, it doesn’t feature zombies in the form of ravenous monsters with an insatiable appetite. In this film, zombies are the product of voodoo and are used for monotonous and heavy work. In addition, the villain in this story also uses them for the execution of his unscrupulous practices. The beginning is significant. A funeral taking place, the talk of ‘… steal dead bodies… the living dead….’, The staring eyes that appear on the screen, the stranger dressed in black at the side of the road, the zombies appearing, the coachman who takes off in fear… a dark atmosphere is present from the first minutes. The subsequent events also continue in the same way. Plantation owner Beaumont’s evil plans for Madeleine, the dispassionate zombies employed in the dark sugar factory, the voodoo ritual that the sinister Murder Legendre performs to make Madeleine a zombie … it all means little positive and a dark atmosphere is therefore not only called up quickly but also detained afterwards. It also quickly becomes clear that atmosphere is paramount in this film. Something that is also effectively evoked by the style with which this production was made.
“White Zombie” is in many ways reminiscent of a silent movie. There are relatively many prolonged silences and the excessive use of facial expressions is particularly noticeable. Some of the acting comes across as dated due to the exaggeration and the story takes place slowly, even compared to other horror films of the time. A few things do have consequences with regard to how the horror in this film develops. Although it will have been poignant enough for the viewers at the time, for fans of some gory zombie scenes it will be the question whether this film has enough to offer. It does not contain a lot of violence, action and bloodshed. Also, some of the passing atrocities in this story are suggested or left to the imagination of the viewer. In addition, the appearances and actions of the zombies are subordinated to the villain’s malice and evil schemes in this story. This is otherwise less convincing than could have been the case, because the lack of logic in various events sometimes arises. And some technical flaws are also revealed in this low-budget production.
However, for fans of classic horror films, “White Zombie” has more than enough to offer. For lovers of classics, the above points are often part of the charm that emanates from them. In addition to the dark and ominous atmosphere, this film is also interesting in terms of content. The unscrupulousness and the threat posed by the villain Legendre is increasingly tangible. Legendre works ruthlessly, uses his zombies in the implementation of his nefarious plans and he manages to continue that for a long time. The necessary negative events are therefore the result. Confrontations, whether or not fatalities, the dead resurrected from the grave, dark voodoo rituals, the futile attempts to stop Legendre… these are scenes that the horror fan will appreciate. They are supported by atmospheric music, the sound of voodoo drums in the background, secondary scary noises, a good use of light and dark and the use of shadows. There are also well-chosen locations. The eerie castle, dark cemeteries, gloomy tombs, the low-energy sugar factory, numerous night scenes … these are indispensable elements for the dark and repeatedly slightly macabre atmosphere present in this production.
As the villain, Murder Legendre, we see Bela Lugosi emerge. Lugosi achieved world fame with his Dracula performances. His later Dracula typecasting can also be recognized here. Legendre’s claws deformed hands, his evil smile and devilish grin, his hypnotic gaze and frowning gaze… all the way down to his black cape it is all too recognizable to Dracula fans. Nevertheless, Lugosi is the star of the show in an exemplary way and knows how to radiate pure malice in a memorable performance. Robert Frazer is in shape as Beaumont plantation owner who becomes dependent on Legendre through his obsession with Madeleine. Joseph Cawthorn is also on a roll as Dr. Bruner who provides support with advice and assistance down the battle against Legendre. Furthermore, solid work by Madge Bellamy as Madeleine Parker, although her possibilities are limited because she has to move through the image as an emotionless zombie for a relatively long time. Furthermore, there are the necessary successful scenes for John Harron as he expresses the grief of his film character Neil Parker. Finally, neat supporting work by the actors who make the soulless zombies seem threatening and terrifying in all their emotionlessness. There is not much character development in this story. Not that it matters much.
This film is all about the nightmarish developments caused by Legendre’s evil practices. And director Valperin knows how to portray that in an appealing way. All in all, it does not make this “White Zombie” the best horror classic ever, but it does make it one that is extremely atmospheric. A film that should not be missed by fans of Lugosi and those who love atmospheric horror classics.