White Zombie (1932) is a classic Pre-Code film starring Bela Lugosi. Though it was roundly panned at its release it has, over the intervening decades, become a seminal horror film as regards subject matter, direction, and artistic photography.
To be sure the acting is a heavy handed and creaky, not to mention the squeaky musical soundtrack. But you don’t watch this film for the acting or the soundtrack. You watch it because 1.) it’s Pre-Code which means there’s a lot of sex and dangerous subject matter, and, 2.) it’s a story about zombies when zombies were cool.
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) notwithstanding, I have never been a huge fan of flesh eating zombies. I view many of those stories as one-dimensional. It’s as if the same Knock-Knock joke is being told over and over again. Under those circumstances we all want to chomp on brains if only to escape the endless repetition of rotting corpses chasing ambulatory shish-ka-bobs around a shattered city .
Now, to be fair, Romero didn’t always do this, even in films where he always did this. Then again he was an authentic genius and a phenomenal filmmaker. But much of zombie filmdom after him is derivative — and it reads and looks that way. It’s weak because it is dependent upon itself and has no need of a good background story and characterization. The storylines for these stories all start off with the same premise: there was an Apocalypse, and zombies eat brains.
You can phone that in while waiting in line at a coffee shop. And much of it reads and looks that way. Look, flesh eating zombies jumped the shark with the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith in 2009. I mean, seriously, it doesn’t even work as parody anymore. And, no, I don’t care that there’s a zombie series on TV that is popular right now. So what. This is America. Mediocrity always plays big here. My point is you’ve seen it all before. There’s nothing new there at all. Not one damn thing.
Okay, so I’m a zombie snob. You found me out. Sue me.
But zombies didn’t always dig into skulls after brains. They have an ancient origin, ostensibly tracing religious roots all the way back to ancient Egypt. But the dark supernatural Vodoun magic that was the strongest foundation of zombie lore comes directly from Haiti via Africa. It is this lore that White Zombie explores.
As I said at the top this is not a perfect film. Hell, as a film it’s not very good. I’d be the first to concede that point. But the directors Victor and Edward Halperin made a visually stunning feast. I cannot get over the incredible graveyards built into the sides of hills, the silhouettes moving along the horizon, the mystic shots, the play of light and shadow on stone and faces, the oblique camera angles. There’s a lot of experimentation here, it seems, and it works rather well because it lends atmosphere and layers that not only make the film memorable, it has made the film endure for over 80 years.
I don’t want to spoil the film by giving away too much of the plot. Suffice to say a young couple plans to get married in Haiti, there’s a man who wants the woman for himself, and he approached a mad sugarcane mill owner (Bela Lugosi) who has the name of Murder Legendre. That name alone turns this into a classic.
Lugosi tells the heartbroken young man he can have the love of his life if he makes her a zombie. (That right there, with all its sexual implications, would never make this film see the light of day during the Hays Code era.) The lovestruck young man agrees, the bride “dies” during her wedding service…and off we go.
Hoo boy, and what a ride it is. I cannot get over how well-crafted some of these shots are. Many of the backgrounds were reused from other horror films like Dracula, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Frankenstein.
If you have never seen this film I urge you to do so as soon as possible. Especially if you like horror. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how well the film holds up. It may even spur you on to write a different type of zombie horror story other than what we see so often nowadays.
One last cool aspect about this film? The heavy metal band White Zombie took its name from this movie. Rob Zombie, who founded the band, has always had a deep love and respect for classic horror. As a bona-fide zombie snob myself, I always found it rather awesome that Mr. Zombie would elevate the original film to a height it deserved.
I do want you to see this film. I think you will like it.