Today is the first day of October, the month of Halloween. With that in mind I thought it might be fitting to talk about a horror film from Hollywood's First Golden Age of Horror--White Zombie.
Hard as it might be to believe, zombies have not always been a fixture of the American/European horror genre. In fact, the word zombie would not come into common usage until after the publication of the book The Magic Island by William B. Seabrook, which detailed the author's observations of Haitian voodoo (or, more properly, voudon). The book proved to be a bestseller and fueled interest in the United States in voodoo and zombies. In 1932 in New York City, Kenneth S. Webb's play Zombie debuted. And then independent movie producers Victor and Edward Halperin hit upon the idea of doing a movie to capitalise on public interest in zombies. White Zombie drew upon The Magic Island for much of its information. It also took elements from the stage play Zombie, a situation which would result in Kenneth S. Webb unsuccessfully suing the Halperin brothers for copyright infringement.
With zombies having only recently entered the consciousness of America, White Zombie would prove to be a historic film. It would be the first movie to deal with zombies. As such it would establish many of the lasting cliches of the zombie subgenre. As state earlier, many of these cliches were taken from Seabrook's book. When a zombie is created, he or she must be removed from his or her grave as soon as possible, lest the body begins to rot. Zombies are both mindless and obedient, making them ideal slaves for menial tasks (in the film they work in Murder Legendre's sugar mill). Even a scientific explanation for zombies is provided, as missionary Dr. Bruner explains his theory that zombies aren't really dead, only mindless slaves created through potions (a theory later explored by botanist Wade Davis in his nonfiction books). Of course, the Halperins did not only borrow from Seabrook's work, but also created a few things of their own that would become staples of the genre. Legendre is able to control his zombies from a distance. And while Seabrook says that zombies cannot be given their lives back (something we now know not to be true), in White Zombie it is said that they can.
While White Zombie would have a huge influence on the horror genre, it is not quite a horror classic in the sense of Universal's Frankenstein, Twentieth Century Fox's Island of Lost Souls, or MGM's Freaks. The film does have its flaws. Even when it was first released, White Zombie was attacked as a rather old fashioned movie. Much of the acting is rather broad and the dialogue sometimes melodramatic, reminding one much of the early silent films. As an independent movie made outside the studios on a shoestring budget, its production values are a far cry from The Bride of Frankenstein. For many modern viewers unaccustomed to early talkies, its pace might sometimes seem a bit too deliberate. And as the film that created many of the cliches of the zombie subgenre, many viewers might find it to be old hat. That having been said, White Zombie does have a good deal to recommend it.
Perhaps its strongest point is the performance of Bela Lugosi. While he may have hammed it up in Dracula, Lugosi is amazingly restrained in this film, giving the movie's best performance as Murder Legendre, the evil voodoo practitioner and creator of zombies. In fact, there are those who believe this is Lugosi's best performance of his early years as a horror actor. Another of the movie's strong points is Victor Halperin's direction. Although his direction is simple and basic, Halperin endowed the movie with a dream like quality, even with a few remarkable shots thrown in. White Zombie contains little in the way of frights of the sort one will see in Universal's Frankenstein films or Todd Browning's Freaks, but it is nonetheless effective as a horror film. Indeed, it can at times be disturbing, as when a zombie falls into Legendre's sugar mill and the other zombies continue working around him as if nothing happened.
Amazingly for its era, White Zombie presents a fairly balanced view of voudon. While Murder Legendre is presented as an evil necoromancer, it is made clear that he is not typical of the Haitians, nor is his like even accepted among them. There is even a good voudon practitioner in the form of Pierre (Dan Crimmins). Sadly, the film does not make it clear that voudon is essentially a syncretic religion combining native African and Roman Catholic beliefs. Indeed, it would be years before Hollywood would portray voudon as anything but a rather exotic form of witchcraft.
Although highly successful (it even produced a sequel, the atrociously bad Revolt of the Zombies from 1936), White Zombie would disappear for a time. For years it was thought lost until it resurfaced in the Sixties. Even then legal disputes between distributor Frank Storace and the survivors of Stanley Krellberg (who had provided the money to the Halperin brothers to make the film) kept the film from being fully restored for many years. Fortunately, it has since been restored and is again widely available.
Here I should point out that while most often referred to as "zombies," the living dead of George Romero's films (the first being the classic Night of the Living Dead) and their myriad imitators are technically not zombies. Strictly speaking, zombies are individuals whose souls have been stolen (that is, they are dead) by a necromancer, whose obedient servants they then become. Indeed, in many respects the living dead of Romero's movies and their imitators more resemble the ghouls of Arabic legend (shapeshifting demons who feed on dead bodies) or the draugar of Norse myth (the basis for Tolkien's barrow wight) than they do proper zombies.
As I said earlier, White Zombie is not a classic in the same sense as many of the Universal films. And it might not be suited to many of those with more modern sensibilities. But it is also a historic film and one that would prove important to the horror genre.