Horror Month 2016 Day 1: White Zombie

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As Halloween beckons, I want to tell you about one of my favorite spooky films — and one of the best performances Bela Lugosi ever gave on screen.

I’m speaking, of course, of 1932’s White Zombie.

“What?” I hear you say. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard of it.”

Can’t blame you. While most of the other horror films of the era — Dracula, FrankensteinThe Wolf Man, The Mummy, and even The Invisible Man – have a strong and iconic presence in our pop culture consciousness, White Zombie seems to have disappeared off the map. In the grand scheme of horror films, it’s been relegated to the status of lesser babka.

Certainly, there are reasons — for one, the film was thought lost until a print was rediscovered in the 1960s; for another, there is no real “monster” in the film, only monstrous actions, and chilling atmosphere.

For me, though, this is a film that I have to watch at least a couple of times during the “Auguseptoberween” season, and it never fails to give me a bit of a creep.

Here’s the plot: We learn by way of backstory that two young American lovers — Neil (John Harron) and Madeline (Madge Bellamy) met a Haitian plantation owner, M. Beaumont (Robert Frazer) while traveling. Beaumont, we learn, is smitten by Madeline’s charms. She, however, is promised to marry Neil, and they are shortly to be wed.

Hoping to nab her for himself, Beaumont convinces the pair to come and visit him at his plantation, and to further conduct their marriage ceremony at his mansion. There, he attempts to woo Madeline (even trying to steal her away from Neil as he walks her down the aisle), but she resists, albeit politely.

It should be noted that on the way to the mansion, Neil and Madeline encounter a group of Haitians conducting a burial ceremony in the road, burying their loved one there out of fear that, if buried in a lonely graveyard, they would be resurrected as a zombie.

Enter Lugosi, as the villainous Murder Legendre (possibly one of the best names for a bad guy ever). A known practitioner of voodoo and sorcery, Legendre operates a plantation of his own, using locals he’s made into zombie slaves.

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Beaumont asks Legendre for help in making Madeline his own. Legendre, who has seen Madeline previously and stolen a scarf from her, also desires her and decides to make Beaumont his pawn. He gives him a special powder, and tells him to put a small amount in Madeline’s drink. The rest would be left up to him.

Beaumont at first resists, but his desire overcomes his revulsion and he relents, and uses the powder on Madeline. Madeline falls into what appears to be death, and is buried in a local crypt. Neil, despondent, goes on a drunken bender and wanders into the cemetery, where he wishes to hold his beloved one last time, though she be dead. He finds, however, that her body is not there.

Madeline, we learn, has been put into a zombie trance by Legendre and given to Beaumont, susceptible to his sorcerous suggestion. Neil seeks help from a local doctor, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), who knows much of local superstition (Haitian magics, he says, came from Africa and represent cultures that were old “when Egypt was young”).

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In the meantime, Beaumont repents of what has been done to Madeline; he wanted her to give herself willingly to him, and to have her in a zombie state is repulsive to him. Legendre, however, has plans of his own, and puts the powder in Beaumont’s drink, slowly making him a zombie as well.

Neil and Dr. Bruner eventually discover it is all Legendre’s doing, and storm his castle (yes, he has a crumbling castle on the coast). Beaumont sacrifices himself, pushing Legendre off a high ledge, and Madeline is freed of the zombie curse.

Now, there’s certainly a lot of the “cheesy” in this film; even the most ardent fan has to admit that. The fact that Legendre clearly lives in a crumbling Gothic castle straight out of Dracula is laughable, as are the obviously taxidermied birds that we’re supposed to believe are cawing. And when Legendre falls to his death, it’s a terribly obvious dummy that falls to the rocks below.

Indeed, the movie has a lot in common with Dracula, which was made a year before: exotic locales, a female victim stalked by a supernatural villain, an ardent young man who receives assistance from a learned doctor, etc.

Where the film separates itself from Dracula, however, is in his focus on the physical, the visceral. While Dracula really exists in a seeming dream­state of mists and gaslights, White Zombie is about the actual “feel” of things: smell, touch, taste, and so on.

When we first visit Legendre’s plantation, we see one of his zombies fall into a grinder used to break up sugar cane, and we are left to imagine his wordless death as the blades tear him apart (it should be noted that the other zombies working the capstan that turns the blades momentarily push slower and harder to slice through him, a masterful touch).

When Neil, in his drunken stupor, goes to the crypt to embrace Madeline again, we do not see his horror at the empty coffin, but we hear his anguished cry. When the Doctor asks if Madeline was dead when she was put into the crypt, Neil tells him that he had kissed her after “death” and “her lips were cold.” These are all details that add to the sense of physical, palpable atmosphere.

Further, Lugosi gives what I think is his best performance in this film. While, in Dracula, he portrayed a character he’d played more than 200 times on stage, here he creates something new. This is not the stiff, mannered Count Dracula. Lugosi’s Legendre is sprightly, his eyes eager, terrible, laughing. Dressed in a cloak and broad­brimmed hat, with a Van Dyke beard, he gives every impression of being a low-­rent ne’er­do­well. But his body language is apt: he is often hunched, close, and uses his hands when he speaks. His face lights up when he is plotting with others, or tormenting them. Legendre is a sadist, and Lugosi is having a ball showing us just how bad he can be.

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Legendre’s best scene comes when Madeline has been drugged. Creeping into Beaumont’s courtyard, able to see her in the window, Legendre produces her scarf and a knife, and then takes a nearby candle. Wrapping the candle in the scarf, and using the knife like a pencil, he quickly, expertly plucks at the candle until he’s carved essentially a wax voodoo doll to use in the scheme.

It’s difficult to discuss this film however without noting that it is a product of its time and, as such, has a pretty unenlightened view of race. Haitian characters are given short ­shrift, appearing only briefly as townsfolk or as zombies; I believe only one person of color has any spoken lines at all. The action and focus, of course, is on white characters. Even Legendre’s “elite” zombies that he uses for his most delicate dirty work are all white people he’s turned. Haiti has a long a varied history — it is the only nation to have emerged from a successful slave revolt — and there would have been ample opportunities to use people of color to better effect in the film. But, alas, that just wasn’t a priority in 1930s Hollywood.

A short film at just over 60 minutes long, it’s a quick watch for a horror flick marathon or a fun night with popcorn. It’s currently available to stream via Amazon Prime.

Peter Kuebeck is an award-winning journalist, multi-award-winning miniature builder, gamer and horror fan.