White Zombie occupies a place in cinema history as the very first zombie movie. Inspired by The Magic Island, William Seabrook’s 1929 book on Haiti which included an account of Haitian voodoo practices, White Zombie presents zombies in their traditional, pre-Romero aspect- created by men via a poison, perhaps magical, perhaps not, to be used as unpaid, compliant slave labor. No plague, no weird radiation from Venus, and most definitely no hunger for human flesh. In this case, the zombies are still alive, they’ve just been put into a death-like trance. White Zombie was respectively produced and directed by the brothers Edward and Victor Halperin, who completed filming in just 11 days, using sets rented from Universal’s recent Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931). Along with the sets from Dracula, the filmmakers brought its star Bela Lugosi, now forever typecast as a villain.
Crazed by love, with the object of his infatuation, Madeline (Madge Bellamy) about to marry another man, the planter Beaumont (Robert Frazer) makes a deal with the devil- in this case Lugosi as the sinister planter “Murder” Legendre, who speedily turns Madeline into a zombie. Later, Beaumont, filled with remorse, and finding Madeline’s wooden demeanor a bit off-putting, wants to return her to her former state. Legendre, however, has his own plans.
Legendre’s zombies are many; he keeps a cadre close by him, made up of enemies who opposed him in life and now carry out his dirty work. Others work his sugar mill, toiling silently while the machinery groans their misery. As we are shown the giant mill, in a scene in which sound, light, and shadow are masterfully used, one of the soulless laborers falls and is crushed along with the cane, dying without a cry or a work stoppage.
Madeline’s fiancé Neil (John Harron) is tricked into thinking she has died. He is an ineffectual hero, ever-swooning, and initially he gives in to despair. With the help of a savvy, pipe-smoking priest, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), he is eventually convinced that Madeline is not dead and sets out to find Legendre’s seaside castle, the “house of the living dead”, and to attempt to reclaim his beloved.
The acting in White Zombie deserves no high praise. With his neatly trimmed goatee and penetrating stare, Lugosi is Mephistophelean; he gives his character a sly, one-sided smirk, as if it feels very good to be so bad- but Legendre remains an unmemorable villain. As Madeline, Madge Bellamy is more than a little wooden even before she becomes a zombie. Elsewhere, melodramatic over-acting abounds. Supporting actors, including some rather unconvincing ‘Haitians’, mostly played by whites in blackface, are full of ham. The script is lacking any remarkable dialogue, although there are some clever moments, such as when Legendre’s maids argue over whose turn it is to brush zombie Madeline’s hair. It is the unusual plot, but above all the cinematography that saves the film. Cameraman Arthur Martinelli sets up memorable shots, including the sugar mill scene and a hillside cemetery at night. One of the best scenes shows Neil, thinking Madeline dead, drowning his sorrows in drink at a bar table. No one else is shown in the scene, only Neil and the dancing shadows on the wall, as cheery music plays and he gives in to despair. The dreamlike chiaroscuro images make this film worth seeing- if just barely.