Victor Halperin’s White Zombie acquired a bit of a cult following since it’s rediscovery in the 1960s after long believed to be lost, and while looking very beaten with overly dark scenes and scratchy version. This film is highly regarded by many horror aficionados, and fans of cinema one thought a complete restoration of the footage occurred by today technology advancement, sadly no. The movie no longer realistically scary as it was in the early 30s, still encourages buffs of all genres to watch it at least once, however the slow pace and questionable acting likely to dissuade many from viewing it at all. The movie entered into an interesting phase in the past two decades with filmmaker and director Rob Zombie, using it for the name of his former band. The original shooting for the entire production 11-days, on a budget of $50,000 (that’s an estimated $880,000 today), financed by United Artists, now contains a computer-colorized version, which many find as a displeasure to see.
White Zombie is widely considered the first real zombie movie; however this reviewer disagrees with that assertion, its more akin to voodoo style zombies and little used avenue in horror with regard to topic of zombies. Films such as The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988); Skeleton Key (2005) and recently Tom Costabile’s Voodoo (2017) explores this a tad more, as most horror fans agree that Night of the Living Dead and essential George Romero created and founded the modern understanding of the flesh-eating zombies which dominated a large portion of the horror cinema.
Romance starts the film with lovers Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy, in her only horror film) and Neil Parker (John Harron, who went onto play many minor roles often commonly uncredited) traveling in a carriage in Haiti driven by an uncredited Clarence Muse, which finds its way blocked by a funeral procession. As they wait for the funeral to clear, a creepy man emerges from the darkness, which the audience learns about later as ‘Murder’ Legendre (Bela Lugosi) with some of his zombies following. Legendre clearly takes Madeline’s scarf as the carriage rushes away to the plantation home of Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) for their wedding at his bequest. Beaumont’s alternative motive for inviting the couple, he loves Madeline dearly and uses Legendre, to not only stop the marriage but make her a slave to him, with a concoction given later Madeline which makes her submit to the voodoo magic, looks a little too vacant in the mannerism to have a convincing portrayal. Lugosi, the most recognizable and likely for his name, not used for the best of abilities, the mesmerizing gaze familiar in Dracula deployed again, and used to put his victims under his control. Once she’s under the spell and a fake funeral staged, her lover Neil won’t return home, he suspects too many things, all leading to an above standard ending.
It’s a silly plot no doubt, but creates some terrific atmospheric shots making use of some impressive sets which were apparently leased from Universal Studios. In fact, some who watch the film make a game of identifying the pieces such as props and the furniture from the Universal classics, i.e. Frankenstein (1931), hint at least four films involved. The over-criticized aspect concerning the ‘poor acting’ might actually extend from that much of the cast used to work in the silent pictures, and tried to change over to talkies.
Although, not a true horror classic, it stubbles to convey the creepiness, and while only 69-minutes, the pace feels off, the storyline not as thoroughly clear. The film serves more to the appeal of vintage horror, an unpolished gem hidden in the darkness, fans, those interested in the history of the horror genre, than just mere entertainment, yet secure in the guarded realm of history. In addition, the film had a sequel called Revolt of the Zombies (1936) with the same director of this movie, none of the characters returned for it, except in the archive footage of Bela Lugosi with the credit role of The Eyes.