My survey of the zombie in popular culture begins with the 1932 film, White Zombie, directed by Victor Helperin and starring Bela Lugosi. Making full use of re-dressed sets from the 1931 hits Dracula and Frankenstein, as well as the cinematography skills of Arthur Martinelli, White Zombie introduces viewers to a concept of the zombie that is different from what we know these days, but in a visually interesting and consistently creepy film.
The plot is a stretcher from the beginning. Convinced by the wealthy white Haitian Beaumont to come to Haiti and be married on his plantation, the dashing young Neil and beautiful Madeline are drawn into Beaumont's trap. His plan? Enlist the services of the sorcerer LeGendreKarloff) to fake Madeline's death and bring her back as Beaumont's sonambulistic mistress. But Beaumont underestimates the deviousness of LeGrand, and before you know it, practically everyone has been turned into zombies. It's up to the pure-hearted Neil, working with the scientist Dr. Bruner, to save the day.
Now, these zombies aren't your modern-day walking dead. The flesh-eating, shuffle-footed rotters we know today are the evolution of monsters imagined by Richard Matheson (in the 1954 novel I Am Legend), adapted into the film The Last Man on Earth (1964), and given their real nasty edge by George Romero in 1968's Night of the Living Dead. More on those narratives later. In truth, the zombies of White Zombie are mindless automatons, but operate fully in the service of the magician LeGrand. Think of these old school zombies as a victim of mind-control brought about by a pop culture version of voodoo.
The carriage driver (always a useful chap in a horror film) explains the basics of these Haitian zombies to Madeline and Neil in the opening minutes of the film. Who are those fellows up there on that hillside digging around in the dark? “They are not men. They are dead bodies. Zombies – the living dead. Corpses taken from their graves who are made to work in the sugar mills and the fields at night.”
The concept of slavery is clearly impressed upon the film. Set in Haiti, the only modern nation to have had a slave uprising in which the oppressed prevailed, White Zombie depicts blacks often in the same state of servitude – this time as animated corpses, and a disposable work force at that. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is a tour of the sugar mill, where we see black workers lurching through the machinery of the industry. One black zombie falls directly into the gears of a giant machine. Only the audience cares.
All the more disturbing is the implied horror – perhaps lost on contemporary audiences – of white people becoming zombies (that is, being enslaved) in similar ways. When LeGendre turns the tables on the selfish Beaumont and takes control of a white man, this seems to be depth of the horror the film takes us to, but not before a white woman (Madeline) has met a similar fate. The complications that the plot moves toward – the enslavement of white men and women – is a telling glimpse into the racial psychology of the first half of the 20th century. White slavery, anyone?
The pacing of and performances in the film will feel awkward at times, as both the actors and the filmmakers are clearly coming out of the age of stage and silent film. It seems that few people understood that the power of film requires that many aspects of the presentation be understated. Bela Lugosi as the mastermind and sorcerer LeGendre gives the most distinctive performance, but many viewers will feel as though they are watching camp and not a legitimate horror film. Nevertheless, White Zombie has many interesting moments – mostly of a visual and atmospheric nature – and, with the film clocking at just under 70 minutes, it's worth your time.
For those of you who are wondering about the heavy metal band White Zombie, yes, they did take their name from which took the movie, and it's been a primary source of inspiration for former art school student Robert Cumming, AKA Rob Zombie, who has been nominated three times for a Grammy, as well as becoming a noted director of House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil's Rejects (2005), Halloween (2007), Werewolf Women of the SS (2007), and Halloween II (2009).
Up next: I Walked With A Zombie (1943)