Although it opened in the wake of such classics as DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, and made a fortune at the box office on its initial release, WHITE ZOMBIE is all but forgotten today. The film opens as a young couple, Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and Neil (John Harron), pass by a funeral in Haiti in which the body is being buried in the...read more
Although it opened in the wake of such classics as DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, and made a fortune at the box office on its initial release, WHITE ZOMBIE is all but forgotten today. The film opens as a young couple, Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and Neil (John Harron), pass by a funeral in Haiti in which the body is being buried in the road. Their driver explains that this will protect the corpse from grave-robbing ghouls. The couple's coach later passes a group of strange creatures led by a mysterious figure, Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi, fresh from his immortal success in DRACULA). The driver hurries past and later explains that these creatures are zombies, living dead who have been resurrected through voodoo. The couple finally arrives at the mansion of Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), where they are to be married. Madeline met Charles on the ship that took her to Haiti to join her fiance, and the wealthy man insisted the wedding be held in his home, though it's obvious his interest in her is less than honorable. Later, Charles gets Legendre, who provides zombies to work in the sugar mills, to turn Madeline into a zombie after she refuses his love. He realizes his mistake when she becomes one of the living dead, but the evil Legendre, who is also taken with the girl, will not change her back to her former self. WHITE ZOMBIE, the first film ever made about zombies, was inspired by William Seabrook's 1929 book on Haitian
voodoo, The Magic Island. Produced and directed by brothers Edward and Victor Halperin, the film is a neglected classic that deserves to be placed alongside the early Universal horror pictures and the later Val Lewton chillers. With excellent lighting and camerawork by Arthur Martinelli,
imaginative use of sound and music, makeup by Jack Pierce, and opulent sets (left over from a wide range of pictures, including THE KING OF KINGS, 1927; DRACULA, 1931; and FRANKENSTEIN, 1931), WHITE ZOMBIE creates a sense of nightmarish foreboding and dreamy disorientation (indeed, the last line
in the film is "Neil, I . . . I dreamed") rivaled only by Carl Dreyer's masterpiece VAMPYR (1931). While the Halperins demonstrate a keen sense of the possibilities of the cinema, however, their handling of actors is woefully inadequate. With the exception of Bela Lugosi, who turns in one of his
finest performances, most of the acting in WHITE ZOMBIE is weak. Luckily, the dialog is kept to an absolute minimum and many scenes are played out with only eerie sound effects as accompaniment. The success of WHITE ZOMBIE landed the Halperins a contract with Paramount, but their subsequent
efforts--both in the horror genre and outside of it--never equalled the artistic or financial success of WHITE ZOMBIE. A sequel of sorts, THE REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES, was made by the Halperins in 1936 and was a crushing disappointment.