The legendary George Carlin once said that zombies are unreliable, and while he wasn’t referring to the quality of the films they appear in, I’ll hijack his statement and agree with him. I’d also add that they’re inconsistent in their behavior. Sometimes they run, sometimes they shamble, and sometimes they come back for revenge.
The undead behave a little differently than what we as modern viewers have come to expect in “White Zombie.” No, I’m not referring to Rob Zombie’s industrial metal band - I’m talking about the 1932 film directed by Victor Halperin and starring Bela Lugosi. It’s considered by many as the first feature-length zombie film, and its walking dead are less of the shambling, flesh-eating than they are voodoo and mind-controlled variety.
The story takes place in the West Indies, and gets into swing when a witch doctor turns a newly-wed bride into a zombie slave. He’s been doing it to the natvies, but people only really start to care when he does it to a white woman. The commentary on slavery and racism here is daring for a movie of its time, though I’d be hesitant to claim it has anything particularly interesting to say about its subject matter.
Bela Lugosi stars as zombiism-practitioner ‘Murder’ Legendre (could you have a name more badass than that?) and he chews up the scenery in a performance with more than a passing similarity to his one in “Dracula” a year earlier. I think the only different is his facial hair. He glares at the audience and wear comical expressions throughout, and is a joy to watch whenever he’s onscreen. His ham is well complimented by the rest of the cast, who bring a slice of their own cheese to this black and white sandwich.
There’s some inventive cinematography on display, but only occasionally, as the film resembles a stage play for the majority of its runtime. There are a couple of impressive, albeit primitive matte paintings, and a bizarre effects sequence where the screen is split in half with a Star Wars-style screen wipe that doesn’t quite work. On a technical level, the film is ambitious. Sadly, the version I watched came in one of those “10 movies for 5 bucks!” packs and it wasn’t exactly what I’d call “lovingly restored.” The dialogue sounded like it was recorded on a potato.
It’s not just the technical elements that make films like “White Zombie” and others from its era a little more challenging to watch nowadays. 34 years after it was released, George Romero redefined - or, more bluntly - DEFINED the zombie genre with “Night of the Living Dead.” It’s difficult to see how scary “White Zombie” was to viewers in 1932 since our perceptions of horror have been molded by our experiences with another century worth of the genre’s evolution. In fact, the most effective thing in the film was a large bird of prey that sounded like a woman screaming. If it wasn’t so funny, it would be disturbing.
“White Zombie” hasn’t lost all of its impact, however. It’s still entertaining, and like the last “genre-originating” film I reviewed (Bava’s giallo “Evil Eye” from 1963) it ends on a light note, and with a coincidentally similar joke. There’s a lot to appreciate about these films that did something new in their genre, and it’s truly mindboggling to think that there was ever a time in history when the cinematic zombie was a fresh idea!