White Zombie is a 1932 horror film, widely accepted as the first feature length zombie film. The zombies are different from what you’d expect today. There’s no bloody stagger, no slack-jawed groans, or want of brains. Zombies in the film are soulless corpses who have been murdered and brought back to life, dead-eyed creatures who do manual labor and the evil bidding of the film’s antagonist, Murder Legendre. And yes, there’s a character named Murder Legendre. Played by the one and only Bela Lugosi, the fact that they named the lead role Murder is a prime example of why most critics panned the film – they found it unforgivably ridiculous. Audience and modern reception has been almost contentiously mixed as some try to bury it from the memory of early horror while others try to bring it back to life.
The film is about a young couple, Madeleine and Neil, who are soon to be married at the Haitian plantation of a recent acquaintance, Monsieur Beaumont. Secret motives are at play throughout the movie and Monsieur Beaumont’s is that he desperately wants to steal the love of Madeleine. When she refuses to run away with him, Beaumont turns to Murder Legendre, a sugar cane mill operator by day and zombie master on the side. Legendre and Beaumont strike a deal. Legendre will give Beaumont the means to turn his resistant beloved into a zombie. However, it never occurs to Beaumont that a voodoo master whose primary business strategy is employing a hoard of living dead in his factories might have ulterior motives of his own. Drama and horror ensues as Neil searches for his lost fiancée, Beaumont learns the hard way that zombies make crappy lovers, and Legendre works his sinister magic.
White Zombie was made by the Halperin brothers, two independents without a track record in Hollywood who wanted to jump in on the horror film scene. Lugosi was by now a huge star from his role in Dracula but accepted an extremely low salary for the White Zombie role, with most reports ranging from $500 - $900. Why Lugosi even agreed to the role is itself a mystery (though, after turning down the massive hit Frankenstein, Lugosi was purportedly afraid to reject any starring role). The whole movie was shot in eleven days with set pieces borrowed from Universal films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Lugosi’s own Dracula. The Halperin brothers were convinced that the early 1930 sound films were too talky, so White Zombie’s screenplay cut down on dialogue and played up action.
Unfortunately, critics and audiences eager to usher in talkies found the film’s over-the-top silent-era approach outdated and hammy. Critics lambasted the film. New York World-Telegram writer William Boehnel said, “The plot...is really ridiculous, but not so startlingly so as the acting." and the New York Evening Post’s Thornton Delehaney stated, “ The story tries to out–Frankenstein Frankenstein, and so earnest is it in its attempt to be thrilling that it overreaches its mark all along the line and resolves into an unintentional and often hilarious comedy." Commonweal writer Frederic Smith’s acerbic assessment was that White Zombie is “interesting only in measure of its complete failure.”
But fans of the movie, like myself, believe that the early and present naysayers were merely listening to the movie and not watching it. Granted, the dialogue is borderline funny sometimes. Look for dramatic, vague, and evasive language to heighten suspense e.g. “I don’t think you should get involved with… THAT man!” (that man unknown). You’ll also be greeted with pregnant pauses and stilted, old timey speech galore. But even at its most dramatic, the acting and dialogue fit into the gothic world of mountainside castles and vast stone halls that the Halperin brothers created. Some critics even argue that negative reviewers weren’t listening in the right way to the film. The Halperins were quite innovative with their soundtrack choices, making great use of pregnant pauses for suspense, sharp punctuated sounds like recurring squawks from birds of prey, voodoo drums, groans, chanting, and screams.
Still, focus on the dialogue ignores the film’s visual technical mastery. While the film’s acting may have been “outdated,” White Zombie’s camera work and soundscape proved to be far ahead of its time. The framing is fantastic and helps create an atmosphere of eerie mystery. Superimpositions of Bela Lugosi’s sinister eyes recur throughout the film, creating the unsettling feeling of being watched. The movie demonstrates an early use of the Dutch tilt to give the zombies on the hillside a more foreboding appearance. When it comes to the camera work and atmosphere of each scene, White Zombie’s low budget is rarely visible.
In Classics of the Horror Film, William K. Everson writes that, “There is a meticulous, almost ornamental composition of the frame throughout: Zombies parade silently behind latticed windows, scenes that are almost Dreyer-like in the pace and design. Lugosi and Madge Bellamy frequently move into a scene by being framed through apertures in masonry, or staircase bannisters, the resulting scenes being almost literal equivalents of the old, laboriously handwritten books, where the first letter of the first word of a new chapter would be elaborately enlarged and illuminated.”
Whatever your opinion on White Zombie, I think we can all agree that once the Halperins dug up zombies and brought them to life on the silver screen, cinema itself became the land of the living dead. They found a subject matter that stuck and would continue to evolve in horror movies for decades to come. In White Zombie, zombies embody all kinds of horrors. For Monsieur Beaumont, the greatest horror is seeing the light go out of his beloved’s eyes. For the missionary helping the young couple, the zombie minions out to destroy them are the greatest horror. For Neil, the greatest horror is the fact that one man has the power to both kill and resurrect his wife, guiding her against her will. As the character of zombies developed over time, this latter fear was made even more terrifying. We’re no longer up against a single man. We’re up against every man who ever lived and lived again.
White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film by Gary Don Rhodes (2001)
Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide by Glenn Kay (2008)
Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career by Edmund G. Bansak (2003)
White Zombie on Turner Classic Movies
Kristen Bialik works in public relations in Milwaukee, WI. When she’s not doing that, she’s trying to learn Korean, trying to write short stories, or trying to scheme up ways she can work for Conan O’Brien in Burbank. They’re works in progress.