Sunday, May 22, 2011

#289. White Zombie (1932)

Directed By: Victor Halperin

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn

Tag line: "The Dead Walk Among Us!"

Trivia: Rob Zombie named his first Heavy Metal band after this film.

Considered the first feature-length zombie film ever made, White Zombie is also one of the best, boasting yet another top-notch performance by the legendary Bela Lugosi.

The setting is Haiti. Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron), who are engaged to be married, are traveling by horse-drawn carriage to the home of wealthy plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). Beaumont has agreed to allow Neil and Madeline to have their wedding on his enormous estate. 

What the young couple doesn't realize is that Beaumont himself is in love with the bride-to-be, and intends to prevent the marriage from taking place. To this end, he enlists the help of Murder Legendre (Lugosi), a voodoo master who has developed a potion that transforms a normal person into a mindless zombie. Legendre agrees to help, and gives Beaumont a sample of his elixir to use on Madeline. 

The potion works as promised, but Beaumont comes to regret turning the love of his life into an emotionless zombie, and asks Legendre to change her back. When Legendre refuses to do so, it kicks off a battle of wills between the two men, one that takes a horrifying turn the moment Legendre summons his “associates” to join in the fracas.

Fresh off his star-making role in Dracula, White Zombie provided Bela Lugosi with yet another chance to show off his patented “hypnotic stare” (when he first meets Madeline, Legendre gazes directly into her eyes, mesmerizing the young girl so completely that he is able to snatch a scarf from around her neck). Of course, the real stars of White Zombie are the zombies themselves, and for a film made almost 80 years ago, these creatures are really quite alarming. When we first lay eyes on the undead, they are creeping down the side of a hill towards the carriage carrying Madeline and Neil to Beaumont's estate. Their faces are hidden by the shadows, but as they slowly make their way forward, the driver of the coach, a native Haitian, realizes who (or should I say what) they are, and speeds away. 

We see even more of them at Legendre's “factory”, where, to save money on labor, the evil voodoo expert has put his mindless guinea pigs to work. An unfortunate zombie even falls into the equipment at one point and is instantly killed. The others pay no mind whatsoever to his demise, and carry on with their work as if nothing happened.  It's a scene that, even today, will send a chill racing down your spine. Just imagine how it played to an audience in 1932!

Aside from being the first of its kind, White Zombie is also a bona-fide classic, a film that, like many of the great Universal horror movies, has withstood the test of time.