White Zombie - 1932
White Zombie - Released August 4, 1932. Directed by Victor Halperin
Influential and imaginative (though primitive) zombie film which impacted everything that came after* which has "zombie" in the title. Made on a $50,000 production budget that used rented sets from various Universal films, Bela Lugosi is the main draw here along with silent movie star Madge Bellamy.
Lugosi's character (named Murdere Legendre) runs a local Haitian grain mill staffed with zombie workers, and his main coterie of mind-controlled slaves are formerly politically powerful men on the island who through one way or another have been brought under Legendre's control (they walk about stiffly with a look of vacancy in their eyes, following commands like robots).
Robert Frazer (as plantation owner Charles Beaumont) is in love (or at least what he calls 'love') with Madge Bellamy's character of Madeline Short Parker, an engaged young woman, with fiancee' in tow, who shows up on the island to take advantage of Beaumont's offer of a spectacular wedding on his estate. This was all a lure to get the woman within Beaumont's reach, as he is soon pleading with her to turn her affections from Neil Parker (John Harron) to him. She won't cooperate, so Beaumont goes to Legendre to supply a means to bring the girl under his command. Legendre is delighted to be of assistance, creating zombies seems to be his chief hobby, and he provides a liquid vial which when consumed by Madeline will make her more pliable. To Beaumont's distress, though, this renders the girl an emotionless slave. To even further confuse his original plan, Legendre is able to feed Beaumont some of this mysterious drug, too, and Beaumont is soon fighting a crippling battle to keep himself from becoming another member of Legendre's zombie corps.
Halperin's direction makes the most of the movie sets (he also moves the camera around in creative ways) and while the story isn't exactly detailed, Lugosi and Madge Bellamy perform their duties as occultic menace and languid slave perfectly well, with an almost faery tale sense of drama as the story shuffles along to the climax on a cliff above the sea. Frazer plays Beaumont as a love-slave to the woman of his affections (not that she wanted the power) and his threatening efforts are completely eclipsed by Legendre's pure evil intent, the resulting contrast (and Beaumont's remorse) making him an unexpectedly slightly sympathetic character.
Halperin's film doesn't really develop the accidental metaphors of slavery, zombies and addiction becoming aligned next to each other, but it is there on screen all the same, and with a certain pathos if one remembers how Lugosi battled a morphine addiction rather famously in his later career. Here, though, Lugosi is a monster 'drug pusher' who must be stopped (a local priest named Dr. Bruner played by Joseph Cawthorn is the key to his defeat).
Overtones of Lugosi's Dracula show up in White Zombie (Dracula was released in Feb of 1931) but as masterful as Legendre's power over his zombie army is, Lugosi doesn't play Legendre as an aristocratic monster ala' Dracula, but as an occasionally hunching, scheming and gleeful maniac, despite the fact the Halperin Brothers have Lugosi in a tux in some scenes and he employs his elegant hand gestures as additional weapons in his arsenal.
*Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur must have screened this film a few times before commencing on that other seminal zombie film from classic Hollywood I Walked with a Zombie of 1943.
More Bela Lugosi
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Original Page January 2016 | Updated April 4, 2021