White Zombie (1932)

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Every month, blog buddy Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick Pre-Code movies for you to watch on TCM.

Director: Victor Halperin.

For my October Pre-Code crazy TCM pick I just had to go with a horror movie, but I ended up picking one that’s not even that scary or frankly that great, but one I enjoy a lot, it’s definitely an essential for Bela Lugosi fans and it’s the first feature-length zombie movie.

Neil (John Harron) and Madeleine (Madge Bellamy), plan to get married at Charles Beaumont’s (Robert Frazer) plantation in Haiti. The lonely Beaumont, who only recently met Madeleine, reluctantly enlists the services of voodoo practitioner “Murder” Legendre (Bela Lugosi) to secure her as his love slave. They administer a drug to fake her death, convince Neil his bride has died, and then raise her from the grave. Legendre has his own plan however, which involves using his powers to keep Madeleine for himself and keep Beaumont from interfering. Neil and Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), an expert on the local occult activities, try to save Madeleine.

White Zombie and Lugosi did so well that his image became glued to the horror genre at a point he might have firmly established himself in serious drama. The scenes where the man called Murder encounters Madeleine and helps himself to her scarf and then strokes it are just a teaser for his delightfully creepy and menacing performance. His accent makes for some bumpy dialogue but his presence works, he looks like a demon with bizarre claw hands that “zombie grip” tighter when he exerts mental powers, and his eyes are everything, photographed right up close and that stare hardly needs voodoo because it’s capable of boring holes through mountains and enthralling viewers into his mesmerized posse.

Harron as Neil is an especially disappointing hero, wallowing in grief and giving in to hysterics but never rising to anything I found dashing or sympathetic. Bellamy is a bit of a mannequin both before and during her catatonic state, but like Lugosi she works the eyeball acting. As the missionary who wisely warned the couple to flee before the wedding, Cawthorn is lively and provides comedy and Clarence Muse gets a tiny but memorable bit as a carriage driver.

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These zombies don’t eat flesh or rot away before your eyes but their halting strides, robotic obedience, pale faces, and grotesquely vacant stares are so well created and revealed that they hold up as nightmare material without the gorier habits and bearing of their modern kin. They’re especially good during Legendre’s tour of his sugar mill and display of his undead labour force. White Zombie brought these voodoo rituals and creatures into mainstream movie consciousness, adding an exotic unknown menace to the already disturbing picture of slavery. Critics may have knocked this folklore then (and since) as flimsy, but it’s still being mined for messages on race, science, religion, imperialism and gender. 

The film was made by the Halperin brothers, director Victor and producer Edward, working with writer Garnet Weston (all three last seen at this blog with their movie Supernatural). The story was adapted from the 1929 William Seabrook travelogue The Magic Island. Though released by United Artists, much of the movie was filmed over 11 days at Universal where cinematographer Arthur Martinelli and art director Robert Berger made nice use of shadow and detail of many different sets and some fabulous matte painting. Make-up was done by monster master Jack Pierce. All this atmosphere and genre pedigree cost just over $60,000, with Lugosi’s share the most legendary and disputed expense. Because he was afraid of repeating the mistake he’d made in turning down Frankenstein, he accepted a low salary, possibly $500 to $900, maybe as high as $5000 depending which story you believe. Chances are good it was on the lower end given Lugosi’s lasting bitterness about his paltry pay compared to the film’s box office success. The Halperin brothers planned for Lugosi to star in their 1935 sequel The Revolt of the Zombies (that same year rumours also had Lugosi and Boris Karloff teaming for Bluebeard), but when Revolt was made and released in 1936 starring Dean Jagger, a legal dispute forbade marketing the movie as a sequel, even though it used footage of Lugosi’s glowing, penetrating stare as a special effect.

This Halloween, Oct 31st at 8:30 ET on TCM take a look at a Pre-Code horror that set the standard for depicting a creature still roaming about and more prominent than ever in pop culture. Now head over to Karen’s blog to see which movie she’s chosen for October.

Source: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, by Gregory William Mank

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13 thoughts on “White Zombie (1932)”

  1. Love this film. It looks way more expensive with those matte shots then it actually is. Aside from Dracula it’s the classic Lugosi image. Tim Burton and Martin Landau made good use of it in a scene from Ed Wood with Johnny Depp.

  2. You made a good point about a movie not having to be that good if it’s entertaining. A person can forgive a lot if that is the case. This one sounds like a lot of fun!

    1. It’s an important one for the genre so it’s fun to see how zombies “came to be” in movies and how little they’ve really changed!

  3. It’s said that in “White Zombie,” Lugosi’s acting style looks back toward the silents, rather than ahead toward modern cinema. I like the stylized performances, it gives the picture a dreamlike and even more nightmarish atmosphere.

    1. True, and while I would’ve liked a more dynamic leading man, I really like what people call “creakiness” in these horror movies, it adds to the weirdness like you point out. The expressionism too, and in this movie those more silent-style scenes are actually the ones that work best. Thanks!

  4. One of my favorite Pre Code horror films. I definitely prefer the Pre Code zombies to post-Night Of The Living Dead zombies. A good illustration of how subtle horror is much more effective than overt blood-and-guts horror.

    Tam

    1. Yes I’m a big believer in the power of keeping things obscured and to the imagination in horror. Well done here. Thanks!

  5. And you remind me, for which I thank you, of the source of Charles McNutt’s choice of pseudonym…it was as Charles Beaumont that he published nearly all of his fiction, film criticism, auto-racing and other non-fiction, and turn in his screenplays for the Roger Corman Poe films, NIGHT OF THE EAGLE/BURN, WITCH, BURN! (with Fritz Leiber’s brilliant first novel as a basis, it isn’t too remarkable that the team of Beaumont, Richard Matheson and an uncredited George Baxt were able to script a film that *almost* does the novel justice–as compared to weak earlier and later adaptations) and many of the best episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE…before his very early final illness and death.

    And, of course, at least these zombies approach the state of “real” drugged zombies…

    1. That’s really interesting, and tragic, I knew of his name from the Corman but just now looked at his bio, I had no idea he died so young. Thanks for adding that info. I like these zombies..

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