December 17, 2010

White Zombie (Review)

White Zombie (1932)

Director: Victor Halperin

3.5 / 5 zedheads


Before zombies were flesh-eating corpses, they were voodoo slaves. The fear they invoked was not the fear of being consumed alive but rather the fear of having one's individuality, free will, and consciousness stolen. White Zombie was the first feature film to represent voodoo zombies on screen, and for that we consider it a classic. Unfortunately, White Zombie is not a stellar movie, even by the standards of the 1930s. It's not as bad as critics in 1932 charged, but it's less interesting as a movie and more interesting for how it established the cinematic zombie mythos

In Haiti, a plantation owner named Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) demonstrates remarkable kindness and generosity to a young couple he's just met and persuades them to get married on his estate. Of the couple -- Neil (John Harron) and Madeleine (Madge Bellamy) -- it is Madeline who interests Beaumont most. Beneath the pretense for the invitation, Beaumont seeks to win Madeline's heart. When Madeline refuses Beaumont, he turns to a notorious voodoo practitioner named 'Murder' Legendre (Bela Lugosi). Legendre, as it is widely known, is a zombie master: he resurrects the dead and enslaves his enemies to do his bidding: usually work in his sugar cane mill. Legendre goads Beaumont into using a zombie potion on Madeline that brings about a state of sleep indistinguishable from death. She's pronounced dead, buried, and then retrieved by Beaumont and Legendre. When she's secretly 'resurrected,' Beaumont realizes that Legendre has claimed Madeline for himself and has turned her into just another subservient, lifeless zombie.
Bela Lugosi pioneered the Edward Cullen technique of seduction: off-putting and creepy stares
Despite the salacious undertones in the tagline on the poster ("He made her perform his every will"), White Zombie is a fairly tame movie even for being an independent, pre-code horror film. I'm far more interested in how it depicts zombies for the first time in motion pictures. White Zombie is not the first time the concept of zombies entered into American culture, however. Prior to the film, Kenneth Webb debuted a play called "Zombie" on Broadway, which by all accounts inspired White Zombie. Prior to this, the popular book The Magic Island by William Seabrook dealt in some detail with zombies, as in this passage:
It seemed that while the zombie came from the grave, it was neither a ghost, nor yet a person who had been raised like Lazarus from the dead. The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life—it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanize it into movement, and then make of it a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.
Lifeless. Drudging. Slaves. These are the zombies of White Zombie. Pale faces, wide eyes, blank stares and rigid movements. These characteristics would terrify and amuse audiences for decades. These early zombies are, in fact, the most interesting thing in White Zombie even though they are not actually dead people. The film plays its supernatural elements close to the chest by showing that Legendre has supernatural powers in terms of mind control (as visualized by Lugosi's disembodied, crazy eyes superimposed on the screen), but the zombies he resurrects are still living people. Legendre has used a combination of toxins, chemicals, and his own powerful, hypnotic will to control his zombie slaves. When he's rendered unconscious in the film, or dead, he loses control over his zombies completely. Makes you wonder how he sleeps at night.
Look! It's Dr. Frightenstein and his faithful servant Igor.
 The rest of the film is fairly hum-drum and the acting is melodramatic. While Lugosi manages to muster up a serviceable level of his trademark menace, even he seems to be phoning it in. Everyone else appears to still be acting with the exaggerated tones of the silent era of film. Then again, the acting is not abysmal as some have claimed. Frederic Smith, writing for the Commonweal in 1932 said, "[The film is] interesting only in measure of its complete failure". I wouldn't call it a failure. Obviously, 1932 audiences hadn't seen Troll 2 yet. In a world after Troll 2, a lot of shit smells a bit sweeter. There's just no soul in White Zombie's performances, which is oddly fitting for a film about zombies.

Wham! Right between the eyes!
Given the racist origins of many voodoo tales in the 1920s and 1930s, at least White Zombie is not an overly racist film. At its core, it's based on the other-ing of black culture and the fear of blacks as godless inferiors, half-devil and half-child. However, compared to future zombie films, blacks are saved from mockery by their virtual exclusion from the narrative. For a film set in Haiti, it deals conspicuously with the doings of white men and women. Even the evil magic of voodoo is perpetrated by a white man (albeit an Eastern European white man with a uni-brow, which is cinematic short-hand for "evil"). While it's sad that a story in Haiti has one black person with spoken lines, at least the black characters are not treated to further indignity as in films like King of the Zombies.

White Zombie is not a film I watch very often. It serves its purpose but is not overly memorable or re-watchable. Then again, if you're at all a zombie fan, it's mandatory viewing. If you want to understand where cinematic zombies are today, you have to see where they started.

Stay tuned for the next two weeks as I review even more zombie classics as part of my Christmas countdown: THE 12 DAYS OF ZOMBIE