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White Zombie
Tonight's Feature Presentation

WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Frazer, John Harron

Written By: Garnett Weston Directed By: Victor Halperin

The Short Version

The first movie to feature zombies as its monsters of record.

Everything Universal Horror gets wrong, White Zombie gets right.

‘Murder’ Legendre is Bela Lugosi’s best performance.  Yes, even better than that one.

The opening chant will stay in your head for years.

White Zombie is the best horror film of its era.  Period.  If you haven’t seen it yet, ‘Murder’ Legendre compels you to do so!


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

AGED CHEDDAR.

After all this time, still tasty and sharp.


Pairs Well With...

RUM.

What exactly do you think all that sugar the zombies are refining is going to be used for, hmm?  I suggest the clear Bacardi, myself.

“Before we get through with this thing, we may uncover sins that even the Devil would be ashamed of.”


Oh, no.  There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of here.  While the films of Universal Studios hold the post as the primary standard bearers of horror in the 1930s and 1940s, it is the forgotten classic White Zombie, made by the Halperin brothers and released through United Artists, that stands head and shoulders above all others as the best horror film of its era.  It is also the film that first introduced zombies to moviegoers, and one of the very few that actually treats them as the true zombies of West Indies legend.  And as if all that wasn’t enough, it also happens to feature the finest performance of Bela Lugosi’s career.

If that doesn’t convince you to see White Zombie yet, why the hell not?

Sigh.  Don’t let the black and white scare you.  It doesn’t hurt.  I promise.

Even before putting the movie in again tonight, I could recall the opening credits sequence vividly, and once you’ve seen – or more appropriately, once you’ve heard – it, I doubt that it will escape your thoughts, either.  Our story begins in Haiti.  A group of locals are gathered in the middle of the road, and they are chanting.

“Oo wa wa wa oo wa wa wa…”

They are chanting because they are conducting a funeral ceremony.  They bury their dead in the middle of the road, you see, because there’s always traffic, and the traffic makes it less likely that the bodies will be dug up by grave robbers and made into zombies – the living dead, mindless slaves set to work at harvesting and milling sugar cane for their sinister witch doctor masters.

“Oo wa wa wa oo wa wa wa…”

Coming up the road this night are Neil (John Harron) and Madeline (Madge Bellamy), recently arrived from America and on their way to be married at the estate of a recently made friend and benefactor, Monsieur Beaumont (Robert Frazer).  Their coach driver has them pause for a moment out of respect for the ceremony, and then continues onward.

“Oo wa wa wa oo wa wa wa…”

They stop again when a man approaches them from the side of the road.  They do not know this yet, but the man is ‘Murder’ Legendre (Bela Lugosi), the most feared witch doctor on all the island.  Madeline attempts to speak with him, but he says nothing as he leans into the coach slightly.  Meanwhile, the driver looks further up the hill, and notices a group of figures watching the coach.  Immediately he recognizes them for what they are: zombies!  Terrified, the driver urges the horses onward, and as the coach pulls away, Legendre manages to take Madeline’s scarf as a souvenir…

“Oo wa wa wa oo wa wa wa…”

As might be supposed, this is not the last that Neil and Madeline will see of ‘Murder’ Legendre, and they will not find Monsieur Beaumont to be quite the benevolent host they were expecting, either…

“Haunting” is a word often used in horror films; often generously so.  I tell you that opening chant is genuinely haunting.  From the moment I first heard it, nearly twenty years ago now, I have never been able to forget it.  The generic blaring brass of Universal has nothing on this stuff.

But there’s so much more to White Zombie than the chanting.

With the release of Frankenstein and then Dracula the year before, Universal Studios had already begun to establish itself as the bastion of horror cinema, and indeed, The Mummy would be coming up the pipe just a few months after United Artists released White Zombie.  In quick order, Universal essentially swallowed up the whole horror genre, and White Zombie eventually disappeared from sight, actually becoming “lost” until the 1960s.  What was rediscovered was that White Zombie did right almost everything that Universal habitually did wrong.

Along with boasting a musical score that consciously plays to the atmosphere and relies on softer sounds, chants, and choral music for many of its key cues rather than relying solely on brass for the high action, White Zombie is a masterwork of production design as a whole.  The sets, for example, are always detailed, and never give the appearance of something someone slapped together in an hour on a soundstage.  There is real detail at every turn, from the exterior shots to household interiors and everything else in between.  Perhaps most striking of all is the sugar mill set, which the audience is allowed to explore in great detail as the zombies manually work the multistory grinding press in a march of neverending toil.  What’s more, the audience is treated to many different views of this set; we’re never locked into a single static shot.  Indeed, the interior cinematography of White Zombie simply would not be matched for many, many years, and remains superb even by modern standards.  Looking on from a distance, close up from above, walking alongside; the audience can actually feel the toil of the zombies as we watch them work this way, and sympathize with the dread of the character we’ve followed along into the mill.  Not a word is spoken as we get our look at the working of the sugar mill (a rarity for this period, as filmmakers getting used to the “talkie” tended to overstuff movies with chatter); the mill is allowed to speak for itself.

And it does speak.  Words may not be uttered, but the sound of the grinding press is omnipresent.  It isn’t overly loud, but it is merciless.  It never stops… just like the zombies.  And even when the scene moves into an adjacent office next to the main room of the mill, the sound is still there in the background, whether or not the camera is pointed through the grated door leading back to the mill floor.  And if the sound of the press is there, the zombies are there, for the previous scene has already firmly established the relationship between the two.  Thus, the horror is still there.  It adds a whole new level of intimidation to the conversation that is held in that office.


“What do you want me to do?”

“If she were to disappear… for a month…”

“And what would you hope to gain by her disappearance?”

Everything.

“Everything.  Do you think she will forget her lover in a month?”

“Just give me a month.  One little month!”

“Not in a month.  Not even in a year, Monsieur.  I looked into her eyes.  She is deep in love, but not with you.”

“They are to be married within an hour.  There must be a way!”

“There is… a way.  But the cost… The cost is heavy.


The grinding of the press leaves no doubt that it is heavy indeed.  Nor does the voice of the man speaking: the great Bela Lugosi.

Bela Lugosi had cemented himself as an instant legend the year before when he took on the title role in Universal’s Dracula, a role with which he would forever be identified and the one by which he will always be most popularly remembered.  However, it is here as ‘Murder’ Legendre that he would deliver his finest performance.  While Legendre retains some of the Count’s refinements – he’s socially polite at least, though no one’s definition of charming – he has none of Dracula’s aristocratic trappings, and thus feels free to be the down to earth bastard he really is.  ‘Murder’ Legendre is purely and simply evil, and he takes delight in being so without ever taking that delight over the top.  Lugosi takes the unrestrained evil of Legendre and runs with it, creating one of the most calculatedly sinister horror villains of his century.  When he speaks, he does so with confident authority, and is able to convey diabolical intent even when conversing in a friendly tone of voice.  Indeed, he pleasantly engages in the psychological torture of one of his victims under the guise of normal conversation as he whittles a candle.


“Can you still hear me?  It is unfortunate you are no longer able to speak.  I should be interested to hear you describe your symptoms.  You see, you are the first man to know what is happening.  None of the others did.”


The poor wretch reaches for Legendre’s hand, seeking mercy; a gesture of pathos.  Legendre deliberately rejects the gesture.


“You refused to shake hands once.  I remember.  Oh well.  We understand each other better… now.”


Dracula never came close to the understated but palpable evil of this moment.

Not that Lugosi needs to speak to be effective.  The candle he whittles in the above scene is not his first; the audience sees him do so earlier, the first time he inflicts the zombie curse.  Again, no lines are spoken, and time is taken to let the audience get a clear grasp on what he is doing.  And again, Lugosi delivers the chills.

He also gets to call on a trick previously established for him, and go one better, thanks to White Zombie’s cinematographer.  Universal created Dracula’s stare by shining lights into Lugosi’s eyes; the Halperins’ crew takes the reverse approach and lets Lugosi’s eyes do all the talking themselves, superimposing a close up of their image on whatever scene ‘Murder’ Legendre is supposed to effect with his stare.  The result is marvelous.

Indeed, that’s not the only excellent used of superimposed images made during the course of White Zombie.  While Neil believes Madeline to be dead, he goes to a bar to go on a bender.  (This already is beautifully shot; you only see Neil at a table with his bottle of booze; the fact that he is in a crowded establishment is implied entirely by background noise and shadows on the wall.)  He then starts to hallucinate that Madeline is calling to him, an effect created by superimposing her image onto the scene in ghost photography fashion.  Again, the result is marvelous, and even touching.

This is helped by the fact that unlike the case presented by most horror films of the era, neither member of the romantically involved couple comes across as a tool or a buffoon.  The love story here plays as completely genuine, even when it becomes a triangle, and that only serves to strengthen not just the plot in general but even the depth to which the horror elements are, well, horrifying.

Further, the audience isn’t distracted by the comic relief buffoonery that would plague most horror films ever since James Whale decided it would be a good idea to lighten the load during Frankenstein.  Neither the horror nor the romantic atmospheres are ever dashed or distracted by a town drunk or a Keystone Kop of any sort.  There’s only attempt made at a running joke during the entire film, and it’s actually pretty subtle until it’s used one last time to mark the closure of the movie.  The filmmakers have gone to great pains to give White Zombie an excellent atmosphere; they aren’t about to ruin it for any cheap gags.

It’s almost impossible to believe that White Zombie was filmed in only eleven days, and for a relative pittance of a budget, compared to its Universal cousins.  And yet, it was.

If you’re waiting for me to tell you what’s wrong with this movie, by the way, you can stop waiting.  I’ve got nothing for you.  As far as I’m concerned, in any regard that anyone involved had any control over (sure, I’d like a better print to have survived eighty years, but hey), White Zombie is flawless.  Though since you were kind enough to wait, I’ll toss in some more trivia and tell you that yes, a certain very well known horror movie fan and musician who would go on to remake a very famous John Carpenter film did indeed name his band after this movie.

Bottom line, White Zombie is the best horror film of its era.  Period.  It also boasts Bela Lugosi’s finest performance, the first use of zombies as the monsters of record in a film, and one of the few times that said zombies are portrayed as the actual horrors of West Indies legend.  If you haven’t seen White Zombie yet, ‘Murder’ Legendre compels you to do so!

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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