Night #13: White Zombie (1932)

Directed By: Victor Halperin

Surely you don’t think she’s alive, in the hands of natives. Oh no! Better dead than that.”

Just a year after scaring audiences at the time with his depiction of Dracula in uh…Dracula, Bela Lugosi returned with a Fu-Manchu style beard (And better english) to play the awesomely named “Murder” Legendre in White Zombie. Yes that is where messy haired rocker Rob Zombie got the name of his band from. So thanks movie.

A honeymooning couple go to Tahiti where they encounter Zombies, controlled by the aforementioned “Murder” Legendre. That’s about it, more or less. These aren’t zombies in the traditional manner, though there are some similarities. These are instead mindless, living, drones who do the bidding of one man and don’t eat anything as far as I can tell, flesh or otherwise.

The honeymooning couple are there on invitation of a plantation owner who has taken a shine to the bride and wants her for himself. He concocts the elaborate scheme to have the Bride ‘zombiefied’ and to take her for himself. If there’s a better woman to get a woman to notice you then I don’t know what it is. He succeeds, but her husband isn’t convinced she’s dead so seeks about to find her.

There’s a lot of mileage to be had from the imagery on display. It’s no accident that almost all the zombie shown are young black men who are used for nothing but slave labour. Nor is the title a mistake. It can be taken two ways: one that she’s still a ‘bride’ and the other being that she’s the only white zombie of the lot. Like most movies of the era, there’s nothing ‘scary’ about the film, but it’s certainly weird enough to earn a place on the list with its roots being felt years later in something like Boxing Helena (And that’s the only time I care to namecheck that movie, unless it’s a sentence that starts “Hey, you know what film you should never watch?”)

Lugosi, for his part, is hired mostly to stare at the camera – aping what he did in Dracula – but he’s having more fun here than he did there. It’s certainly a better performance than his earlier, stilted, work even though he’s tasked with some ridiculous facial hair. That he is accompanied at all times by a vulture is perhaps hitting it a little too on the nose. It’s probably one of his best performances though, despite it not being his most iconic.

The version of Haiti is what you’d expect from the time. All the black faces are simple superstitious folks or witch doctors. This version of Haiti also brought us that ever so slightly racist quote at the top of the review. It all ends nice and happily, with a ‘love conquers all’ style ending (I know I hate spoilers, but come on, I think it’s allowed on anything pre World-War 2) and a little gag so everyone can leave happily. Also typical of the time is the brisk running time, with the film running at a little over an hour. It’s in the first two minutes that we get our first Lugosi staredown so you can tell they’re not fucking around. For reference you could probably watch this about 3 times before Bad Boys 2 is over, which says something about the films at the time as well as the hideous length of Michael Bay movies.

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