Retro Review: WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)

WARNING: Contains Spoilers

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Madeleine and Neil are a young engaged couple madly in love. Awaiting their marriage in Haiti the two are traveling to local plantation owner and Madeleine’s friend Charles Beaumont’s home when they come across a strain of wandering slaves and their owner Murder Legendre. Legendre polite, but suspicious nonetheless, takes a silent interest in the couple as he retreats to his plantation with his gawking slaves. Friendly missionary, whom of which they met at their arrival in Haiti, Dr. Burner cautions the couple to stay clear of Legendre and his sugar cane mill; but of course as superstition wasn’t a legitimate concern back then Neil ignores Burner’s warning. Upon arrival in his home Beaumont is already scheming to take Madeleine away from her fiance as he truly loves her and can’t stand to see her marry the dull Neil. Enlisting the help of Legendre, Madeleine is drugged at her wedding reception and falls into an apparent dead-like state. Burying her, Neil proceeds to drink his sorrows away at a local bar while Legendre and Beaumont resurrect Madeleine in her tomb, she assuming the same vacant wandering of Legendre’s other slaves. Beaumont quickly grows unsettled by his zombie loves’ blank stare and inability to think for herself and asks Legendre to change her back, but Legendre has other plans for her and intends to turn Beaumont in a zombie as well. Now its up to Dr. Burner and Neil to save his zombie bride and stop Legendre and his army of zombies.

The black and white classics are give or take by modern times. I recently watched Dracula for the first time not too long ago and found myself disappointed, but likewise found The Wolf Man delightful. They’re generally slow for their hour run-time, a bit dated, and favor the story structure to any on-screen action; however, there are gems among rocks and I’m pleasantly able to say WHITE ZOMBIE is a one of the better B&W classics. Resting on my queue for years now WHITE ZOMBIE is a BRZ (Before Romero Zombies), unlike traditional flesh eating zombies we know and love they are of the original Haitian voodoo lore, serving more as mindless slaves rather than the brain eating type. It’s rare to see this strain of undead as blood is preferable in modern zombie films: its a refreshing change that opts for more scares mentally than in visual repulsion. Even with its age against it the film doesn’t offer up much horror otherwise and heavily relies on Legosi’s acting to entice viewers. There is a particular note in the film that I found rather unsettling though, the crow’s screech, that randomly relieves itself throughout the latter half of the film, is nearly deafening and sets your off with its abrupt arrival. Other creepy moments include the ominous leers of Murder Legendre’s living dead slaves.

Bela Legosi is pitch perfect with his signature eyes of menace, hypnotizing his zombies and his audiences in the same evil gaze. His performance is a little drawn from Dracula, which unfortunately is why he was typecast later on in his career. Neil is an absolute failure as a character and likely as a man, contributing nothing but a longing for his dead fiance and a drunken binge. Doe-eyed female lead is consistent with the fair of female characters of its time, but actually proves rather fitting as she spends the last half hour of the film expressionless and mute. Madge Bellamy is rather lovely though and if WhtZmb - Legosimaybe allotted more range back then she could have offered more as an actress. Now Robert Frazer is actually a good concoction of the sleazy, albeit stupid, catalyst to the film who later regrets his decision when he realizes his ‘zombie’ love is about as interesting as a blank wall. He in turn becomes more of the hero towards the end instead of Madeline’s fiance, who I remind loves her so desperately, by sacrificing himself and Legosi off a cliff and awaking her from her ‘sleep’. The film is well shot, filmed entirely in a studio the set design creates a appealing black and white Haitian landscape; and the score, despite being too up-beat at times, is dark and profoundly captures the effect of Legendre hypnosis. Though I would like to mention that the theme of lavish castles, that basically everyone seems to live in in these classics, is a bit of a stretch for a setting that should have been a little bit more coarse and closer to what Haiti actually looks like.

I would also have preferred to see more Haitians cast in the few extra roles. I’m not blind to the era in which this was shot, but regardless as Hollywood was casting limited African American roles they stilled existed and maybe would have attributed to the plot being less ridiculous at the time. I struggled with my synopsis of the film and felt I had to fill in gaps that weren’t exactly explained. At most I still felt like I was in Transylvania (movie version), which personally distracted me some since this type of voodoo actually resonates in Haiti and I’ve always had an interest in it. The film almost takes a queue from German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligri with a similar story of somnambulism as Madeleine doesn’t really appear to be dead, but it doesn’t nearly have the visual palate that film posses. WHITE ZOMBIE is actually a really good black and white film that isn’t overachieved by hype. If you don’t mind the lack of gore or the slow moving plot it’s a paced watch of a highlight in Legosi’s career. Also, I would like to suggest that if you’re looking for more traditional zombies like this, Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow is a fantastic piece to match this old classic, maybe as double feature?

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