white zombie | victor halperin | garnett weston | bela lugosi | madge bellamy | joseph cawthorn | zombie | zombies | voodoo | witch | witchcraft | based on | novel | william b. seabrook | united states | robert frazer | john harron | brandon hurst | george burr macannan
Film: White Zombie
Director: Victor Halperin
Writer: Garnett Weston
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy and Joseph Cawthorn
This is a movie that I learned about early into reseraching the history of horror cinema. I know this one is featured in the Horror Show Guide encyclopedia that I’m working through. I believe this also appeared on a podcast that I used to listen to when they were working through some of these older classics. Aside from that, I knew this starred Bela Lugosi and dealt with zombies. The synopsis for this movie is a young man turns to a witch doctor to lure the woman he loves away from her fiancé, but instead turns her into a zombie slave.
To start this off, I didn’t know this was based off a novel, but I’m also not surprised. There is a ritual as the first images we see. They are doing it in the middle of the road. A carriage then pulls up. Inside of it are Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron). Their driver stops and they inquire what is happening. He explains that it is a funeral. They’re burying this person in the road to prevent someone from waking them up and turning them into a zombie. This freaks out the couple, but they find it to be superstitious. From here, they have an encounter with ‘Murder’ Legendre (Lugosi) along with a group of zombies he created. He takes Madeline’s scarf in the process.
Our couple is on their way to meet Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). He met Madeline and learned she was engaged. He was enamored with her and offered to have her marry at his estate. Upon arriving, they meet a Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn). We learn that he makes house calls and it takes time with how far apart people are in the area.
It is during this night that we learn Beaumont is in love with Madeline. He calls on Legendre for help. He believes that a month away from Neil and she will fall in love with him. Legendre gives him a tonic to help. He doesn’t want to use it, but when he can’t change her mind, he gives it to her. This causes her to ‘die’. Neil doesn’t believe it though. He investigates things with the help of Dr. Bruner.
Legendre and Beaumont steal her body. They are interrupted as the other duo shows up. As the synopsis told, Madeline is turned into a zombie. Dr. Bruner and Neil seek out an old witch doctor for help as they try to save her before it is too late.
This is where I’m going to leave my recap. Much like many of these movies, we don’t get a lot to the story. It is hard as well when you’re working with a runtime just over an hour. What I will say though is that made the movie fly by for me. I could have done with a bit more of fleshing things out, but I’m not going to gripe about that either. This isn’t as established as a story so I can be forgiving from more of the classics.
Where I want to start is that we are in the vein of classic zombies. These are voodoo and I like that this movie is showing us rituals. Legendre seems to be able to hypnotize people by staring at them. Going along with this as well, he holds his hands in a particular way that is also on some of the posters. I thought this worked, especially with how piercing Lugosi’s stare is. I’m not shocked casting him since this was also done in Dracula from the year before. His performance here was good. I’m not sure how accurate the rituals are, but I can believe with them how serious they are taken in the movie.
Since I’ve spoken on there being zombies, I want to go to the social commentary that I pulled from this. Legendre is using the zombies to work in his fields and in the mill. This is clearly showing what the higher ups in a business want. Mindless workers that won’t need breaks and be told exactly what to do. There is even more interesting aspect here that Legendre has also turned his enemies into his own personal entourage. I found this part of it intriguing.
The last bit for the commentary I wanted to explore is the idea of toxic masculinity. The easy one here is Beaumont. He is in love with Madeline. She doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. She is engaged to marry Neil. Beaumont is making his last-ditch effort to sway her mind, regardless of what she wants. You could also throw in Legendre here as well. He has her stay in his castle along with Beaumont once she is a zombie. He is just as bad in that he wants her for his own and will do whatever it takes to have her. What I will say is that Beaumont sees the error of his ways, where Legendre is evil so he doesn’t. It makes it fitting for how it ends.
That should be enough for the story so I’ll go over to the acting. Lugosi is great here. It is interesting that many of the Universal or other films of the era, my introduction outside of Dracula had him in more minor ones. He is such a villain here and plays it so well. Bellamy is fine as our female lead. She does well at playing a zombie once she turned. I thought that Cawthorn brought some comedy to this movie. I like Frazer and his role. What is interesting there is the turn that he has, which causes him to see the error of what he’s done. Harron is fine along with Brandon Hurst and the rest of the cast. Special credit to everyone that played zombies. I thought they did well with that hollow-eyed look. It adds a layer of creepiness.
Then the last things to go into would be the cinematography, effects and the soundtrack. For the former, I think that this was shot fine. It does feel like we are in the Caribbean. I also liked incorporating the lore there as well. They don’t do anything too crazy with setting up the shots. There was a matte painting for the outside of Legendre’s castle which has charm. We also don’t get a lot in the way of effects. What we get are fine for the era. Credit again to those playing zombies and the make-up done there. Other than that, I thought the soundtrack was fine. The most eerie part for me was the chanting and the drums that we hear.
In conclusion, I didn’t love this movie when it ended. The more that I’ve sat and reflected on it, the more I do appreciate it. We have a good setting. I like incorporating the lore of that area. It is interesting that our villain is white and is exploiting this power for financial gain. There is correlating commentary that most of his zombies are black. The deeper messages here work. It deepens the story for me. I would say that the acting was good. Lugosi, Cawthorn, Bellamy and the other zombies as the bright spots. We don’t get a lot in the way of effects. We also don’t need them either. The cinematography and soundtrack were fine to help the atmosphere. I would say this is a good movie. It is one that I will come back to and revisit now that I’ve seen it.
My Rating: 8 out of 10