White Zombie (1932) – By Duane L. Martin

I’ve been a huge fan of Bela Lugosi for more years than I care to remember. While there are many great legends in classic horror, it was Lugosi who always played the villain, no so much with a pure hatred of goodness and humanity, but more of a sense that he simply delighted in being evil himself. Often, while he’s plotting and planning, you’ll see an evil smile, or this look of sinister delight cross his face, and you can’t help but to be drawn in by the charm of it all. He leaves you feeling like, yeah he’s the bad guy and he’s evil and all, but man, he’s just the best! Let’s talk about the story here first, and then I’ll get on with the review.

Madeline (Madge Bellamy) has just come to Haiti on a ship from America, with the intention of marrying her betrothed, Neil (John Harron). While on the ship, she met a man by the name of Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), who took a fancy to her and insisted that her and her fiance come to stay with him at his plantation so they can have the wedding there. He even offers Neil a job as his agent in New York after the wedding. All seemed fine at first, but when Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), the local missionary, shows up at the plantation to perform the ceremony, he expresses his distrust of Charles and suggests that the young couple leave right after the wedding, which they failed to do.

Charles had not only taken a fancy to Madeline, he was a very lonely man and wanted her for himself. To that end, he reluctantly made a deal with a voodoo priest by the name of ‘Murder’ Legendare (Bela Lugosi), to fake her death, and then once Niel was out of the picture, to pull her out of the crypt as a zombie. This came to pass, and as Neil drowned himself in alcohol to deal with his despair, Charles soon came to realize that simply having Madeline’s body and her beauty, without the spark of life that made her who she was, was simply not enough. He begs Legendare to restore her to her former self, but Legendare has other plans for the both of them, and now it’s up to Neil and Dr. Bruner to get to the bottom of things, so they can stop Legendare’s evil plans and rescue Madeline from a fate worse than death.

You know what’s sad? What’s sad is that when most people think of zombies, they think of the George Romero type of zombies, ambling around aimlessly, looking to feast upon the flesh of the living. Zombies have been around far longer than anything Romero came up with however. In fact, White Zombie is, as far as I’ve been able to find out, the first ever zombie film.

The zombies in this film, according to popular belief by the locals, corpses raised from the grave and made to work in the fields and the sugar mill. In truth, they’re living people who have been put into a largely catatonic state through the use of a powder, and are then controlled by the will of their master, who in this case is Legendare. It is possible for them to regain their sense of self, but only Legendare has the power to do it. There is a catch however, and this was actually a fairly large plot hole in the film. If Legendare goes unconscious, the zombies, lacking his control, will start to return to their normal selves, and to insure that he wouldn’t regain control over them, he’d have to be killed. Now the plot hole is this. If he loses control of the zombies when he’s knocked out, and they start to return to their normal selves, wouldn’t they do that when he sleeps and he’s not actively exerting any control over them?

Anyway, the zombies in this film are very much like the zombies in King of the Zombies and other zombie movies of this era. Will-less people, walking around mindlessly, serving a master who controls them.

Bela Lugosi, as I said at the start of this review, is just a delight to watch on the screen. He relished playing roles such as these, and was simply amazing in each and every one. Another stand out member of the cast in this film was Joseph Cawthorn as Dr. Bruner. As delightfully evil as Bela Lugosi was in this film, Cawthorne’s portrayal of the missionary was likeable, and even at times comedic. As for the rest of the cast, some were better than others, but in general they did a decent job with their roles.

I liked how they kept the whole zombie thing based on real Hatian legends and beliefs. Another belief they included right at the beginning of the film, was that some people would bury their dead in the middle of the road, to keep them from those who would dig up and steal the corpses. The reasoning behind this was that people are constantly traveling by there, so it would keep the corpses of their departed loved ones protected.

The majority of the film took place between Charles’ mansion and this other castle on a hill, that belonged to Legendare. All of the sets in the film were beautifully designed, and well suited to the feel and content of the story.

This film has been available for quite some time, but the disc used for this review is the new restored blu-ray version from Kino Lorber. It was mastered in HD from a 35mm fine grain master, and includes both the restored version of the film, and the raw, unenhanced film transfer. It also includes Audop commentary by Frank Thompson, a 1932 six-minute interview with Bela Lugosi, mastered in HD from 35mm elements, the 1951 theatrical re-issue trailer and a stills gallery.

The visual quality of the film looks really quite good. The restoration process did it a lot of good. The sound is pretty decent as well, but unfortunately it suffers from the same problems that many films from back then have, and that’s a limited range of audio frequencies, which can at times make the dialogue hard to understand. Optional subtitles would have gone a long way to mitigating this problem, but sadly, this release doesn’t include them.

All in all though, this was an entertaining and highly enjoyable film. ‘Murder’ Legendare is, in my opinion, one of Lugosi’s most memorable characters, and a prime example of why his legend has continued on into the modern day. The story can seem a bit dull at times, but for the most part, it keeps things moving along and never stays that way for long. If you want to see Lugosi at his best, make sure you don’t miss out on this one. He’s absolutely incredible in it.

If you’d like to find out more about this release, you can check out its page on the Kino Lorber website here, and if you’d like to pick up a copy for yourself, you can get the DVD or blu-ray releases from Amazon, or from any of the other usual outlets.