WHITE ZOMBIE. (1932) BASED ON THE 1929 NOVEL BY WILLIAM SEABROOK, THE MAGIC ISLAND. DIRECTED BY VICTOR HALPERIN AND PRODUCED BY EDWARD HALPERIN.
STARRING BELA LUGOSI, MADGE BELLAMY, JOHN HARRON, ROBERT W. FRAZER AND JOSEPH CAWTHORN.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
This is such a marvellously atmospheric old horror movie, starring Bela Lugosi who was still fresh from his success as UNIVERSAL’s DRACULA (1931). He looks young, extremely handsome, charismatic and devilish here as the white Voodoo Master of Haiti who puts a spell on a beautiful young woman on whom he has personal romantic designs. But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
The beautiful young woman in question is a blonde ‘Twenties bombshell called Madeleine Short, and she’s come to Haiti to marry her fiancé Neil Parker, who’s already there for some reason. I think he has a plantation there. On the boat over to Haiti, she meets a rich young man called Charles Beaumont who’s determined to befriend the young married-couple-to-be for reasons known only to himself.
On the coach-ride to Mr. Beaumont’s plantation, the young couple pass a funeral party that is burying the deceased in the middle of the road. This is to deter anyone who might have a mind to steal the corpse and turn it into one of the ‘undead,’ explains their Haitian coachman matter-of-factly. And, speaking of which, here come a party of these eerie ‘undead’ rascals right now!
The coachman whips up the horses to a frenetic degree.
‘What the hell are you playing at, driver?’ demands Neil irately. ‘We might have been killed!’
‘Or worse, Mister Neil,’ replies the coachman sagely, ‘we might have been CAUGHT…!’
Apparently, Haiti is swarming with these ghouls, who once walked the earth as human beings but whom the most nefarious black magic has raised up from the dead and turned into mindless zombies who work night and day in the islands’ sugar-cane mills. What a life, or should I say what an un-life…?
Mr. Beaumont is a wealthy plantation owner and it soon becomes clear that he’s fallen madly in love with the gorgeous Madeleine, with her huge doe eyes, Clara Bow lips and short blonde ‘Twenties hair.
She’s the very image of a ‘Twenties babe, despite the fact that we’re now in the ‘Thirties. The fashions here are very much still of the ‘Twenties. It gives the whole production the look of a silent movie and, as I’m a huge fan of silent movies, that’s no bad thing in my opinion.
In fact, the film would have worked very well as a silent movie. There’s kind of minimal dialogue in it anyway and the fantastic music score would have been ideal for a silent horror flick.
There’s a long stretch of the film at the end, the bit where Neil is fighting off the zombies by himself, where there’s little or no dialogue and the music is extremely dramatic. You could easily imagine yourself to be watching a terrific old silent movie at this point.
Mr. Beaumont wants to stop the marriage between Madeleine and Neil. He seeks out Bela Lugosi’s evil Voodoo Master, a white creator of zombies with the fantastically memorable name of ‘Murder Legendre,’ to help him. He wants the marriage stopped, but when he realises that the Voodoo Master’s method of doing it is to turn Madeleine herself into one of these ‘living dead’ zombies, he freaks out.
When the Voodoo Master in turn works a spell on Beaumont to immobilise him while he, Murder Legendre, claims Madeleine for his own, the situation becomes desperate. Can Neil rescue the lovely Madeleine from Murder’s evil clutches and, whether he can or he can’t, what will happen now to poor zombified Mr. Charles Beaumont, himself a rich plantation owner but who is now under one of Murder’s terrible spells?
Is he doomed for all time to slave in the Voodoo Master’s mills as one of the undead? And why am I calling him ‘poor’ Mr. Beaumont? If he hadn’t tried to break up Madeleine and Neil in the first place, none of this stuff would now be happening…! He’s only got himself to blame but still, being a zombie is probably a lot less exciting than it sounds.
The bit where Beaumont meets Murder Legendre in the Voodoo Master’s sugar-cane mill is quite chilling. Not only has the VM turned hundreds of once-living people into mindless zombie workers for profit (they work long hours for no pay and never quibble about anything because they can’t), but he’s also turned a specific coterie of them into his own personal group of bodyguards.
‘See these lads here?’ he tells the horrified Beaumont with his trademark evil Bela Lugosi smile. ‘These all used to be my enemies. This one here used to be my master.’
Beaumont is clearly shocked.
‘What happens if the spell you put on them is ever broken?’ he asks nervously.
‘Why, then they will tear me to pieces,’ says Bela matter-of-factly, still smiling. ‘So that can never be allowed to happen…’
By the way, here are some random facts about the film. The film was savaged by the critics upon release for the very things I love about it, the slightly hammy acting and the silent movie look and feel of the thing. The critics were nuts. This is possibly the best zombie movie ever made. Certainly it was the first full-length one.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE from 1943 has the same dark, shadowy atmospheric look and feel to WHITE ZOMBIE. It’s an excellent film as well, though with a slightly more modern feel to it because it’s a full decade older.
Rob Zombie’s metal band WHITE ZOMBIE took their name directly from the film and they wouldn’t have done that unless they thought it was the coolest movie ever, which it is, so take that, moronic critics. I still can’t believe they dissed this film.
The huge stone tower or cliffside castle where the zombified Madeleine is being held prisoner is actually a painting. It’s just like a black-and-white version of the fabulous painted castles in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe film adaptations for AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL PICTURES. It’s a gorgeous castle, very atmospheric-looking and quite like something out of the 1931 UNIVERSAL DRACULA too.
The two little maids assigned to care for Madeleine are scared to brush her hair because they know she’s one of the undead. They’re also too afraid to run away because the wicked and cunning VM will find them and turn them into zombies too. It’s quite a creepy no-win situation in which they find themselves.
Madeleine looks like a medieval princess when she comes out onto the balcony with that long dress on her with the low-slung belt around the waist. If her hair was several feet longer, she’d make a great Rapunzel. She’s the perfect damsel in distress, waiting patiently in her medieval tower to be rescued. There ain’t nothing remotely proactive about this dame.
I’m not sure, though, why Neil is in such an all-fired great hurry to snap her out of the vacant, glassy-eyed zombified state she’s in. At least while she’s checked out like this, she won’t be nagging him to change his socks or get up from the sports on the telly to put the bins out. Some blokes clearly don’t know they’re born.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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