Between the success of “The Walking Dead” on television and the campiness of any number of the “X vs. Zombies” movies in theaters (or, more likely, on VOD), zombies are literally everywhere, having invaded every last fiber of popular culture. George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead is usually credited with inventing the modern zombie, but the horror trope goes back farther than that. Low-budget movie moguls the Halperin brothers (Ex-Flame) made what most people consider to be the first feature length zombie movie thirty-five years earlier in 1932 when they came up with White Zombie.
White Zombie is about a couple, Madeline Short and Neil Parker (Lorna Doone’s Madge Bellamy and John Harron from Closed Gates, respectively), who are heading to the Haitian estate of a rich man named Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer from The Vampire Bat). Madeline and Neil plan to get married, but Beaumont, in love with Madeline himself, has other plans. He enlists the help of a notorious voodoo practitioner named Murder Legendre (the legendary Bela Lugosi from Dracula) to help him win the lady’s affections. Legendre gives him a potion that will appear to kill her, but in reality will turn her into a zombie that he can control. With the help of a doctor named Bruner (The Great Ziegfeld’s Joseph Cawthorn), Neil must brave Legendre’s army of zombie servants to save his true love from her zombie fate.
The script for White Zombie, adapted from William Seabrook’s novel The Magic Island by screenwriter Garnett Weston (Supernatural), is a pretty straightforward tale of love, loss, and betrayal – with a bunch of zombies tossed in for good measure. Although it was an independent production, the Halperin Brothers, director Victor and producer Edward, shot the movie on the Universal lot and made use of whatever sets, props, and costumes that were on hand. The resulting film is very gothic and romantic in style, with a very Universal Horror look and feel to it.
The “Universality” of White Zombie is only reinforced by the presence of Bela Lugosi. By the time Lugosi played Murder Legendre in White Zombie, the actor was already a horror star due his portrayal of Dracula, but had not yet been elevated to iconic status by his later movies like The Black Cat, Mark of the Vampire, Phantom Ship, or even The Black Sleep. Lugosi brings a bit of his Dracula persona to his White Zombie performance, using his eyes and hands just as much as his words and actions to squeeze every ounce of melodrama out of his character. Like the rest of the cast, Lugosi overacts his part, but unlike the rest of the cast, he does it with his tongue firmly in his cheek, like he is in on the joke while the rest of the cast is just packed with bad actors. Lugosi fully embraces his role as Murder Legendre, and his presence transforms White Zombie from a forgettable b-movie to an undeniable classic.
Although the zombies in White Zombie are more voodoo servants than brain-eating shufflers, the influence of Halperin’s undead on Romero’s living dead is readily apparent in their expressionless faces and in their mindless wandering. However, in contrast to Romero’s reanimated corpse zombies, Legendre’s tribe of slaves are man-made, purposely created by their master through a voodoo ritual, Legendre explaining that “in life, they were (his) enemies” and lamenting that, if they regain their souls, “they’ll tear (him) to pieces.” White Zombie’s zombies have the same mental capacities and limited willpower as Romero’s zombies, but how they got that way is much different – they’re not so much undead and they are “unlive.”
White Zombie was shot by cinematographer Arthur Martinelli (The Devil Bat, Black Magic), and it is a great example of an American interpretation of German expressionism, not quite as angular or surreal as some of the silent horror classics, but every bit as dark and shadowy. For visual effects, the film uses plenty of simple overlays and double exposures that are pretty creepy, floating Murder Legendre’s face in cups of wine or inserting Madeline’s ghostly image in front of her grieving lover. By today’s standards, the photographic tricks are rudimentary, but in the nineteen thirties, the cinematography and effects were awesomely impressive.
The music for White Zombie, while effective, is mostly made up of stock music and standards – there isn’t even an actual composer credited on the film. Much of the soundtrack is diegetic music, whether it be drum-and-vocal voodoo chants, a wedding or funeral march, or the zombie Madeline plunking away at a piano in a parlor. The incidental music is much happier than it should be, sounding a lot like leftover scores to silent movies that never got a chance to be used before the advent of movie sound. The music in White Zombie is generic, but it never distracts from the plot of the movie. The bad acting does enough of that.
Victor and Edward Halperin would follow up White Zombie with a sequel called Revolt of the Zombies a few years later in 1936. The rest is history – Romero would “invent” zombies with Night of the Living Dead, and that would lead to all of the World War Z and Warm Bodies type movies that we have today. But remember; even for Romero, zombies weren’t a new thing. White Zombie did it first.