By Doug Gibson
"White Zombie" is a marvelous film. Panned by the supercilious critics of the 1930s, the 1932 voodoo/zombie Haitian mystical horror film is an established classic today. Frankly, all the credit goes to Bela Lugosi. His character, Murder Legendre, is a cinema masterpiece of horror. Evil, courtly, always thinking of revenge and sans a conscience, he is a dark God of the Caribbean, creating zombie slaves for various whims, to fuel his sugar cane mill, to punish his enemies, and merely to amuse himself.
The plot, as virtually everyone knows, involves a young couple, a banker, Neil, and his fiance (John Harron and Madge Bellamy) rather strangely traveling to Haiti to be married in the mansion of a sugar plantation owner, Charles, (Robert Frazer) who Bellamy's character, Madeleine, barely knows. Charles has an obsessive crush on Madeleine, and repeatedly begs her to marry him. She rejects his overtures with quiet patience. However, Charles lust is so strong that he accepts help from Legendre to make it appear Madeleine has died and then have return as a pliant zombie. (There is an early, pre-Hays code scene Bellamy, dressing for her wedding, is quite sexy in undergarments)6
Anyway, after Madeleine's "death," her stunned, bereaved husband spends most of his time in a saloon until prodded by a local missionary, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) to double check on Madeleine's death. Bruner, a longtime resident of the island, suspects that Legendre may be involved. Meanwhile, the merciless Legendre casually turns Charles into a zombie after the repentant suitor begs to have the lifeless Madeleine restored to life. (It needs to be mentioned that prior to George A. Romero's influence, cinema zombies -- thanks largely to "White Zombie" -- were generally sinister slaves for evil henchman.)
The independent film was directed by Victor Halperin and produced by his brother, Edward. It was shot on the Universal Studios backlot. The Halperins were ordinary talents. "White Zombie" was their only money-maker, and its success is owed only to Lugosi. Although shots of the zombies are impressive, including a chilling scene where a zombie falls into a cane masher, the rest of the actors, with the partial exception of Cawthorn, are dull and lifeless. Bellamy is beautiful but as stiff as a state. Frazer is OK but mostly emotes, and Harron is weak as the romantic lead. Lugosi simply dominates the film, with his cheerful evil and his ability to convey devil-like behavior with affability. The film has a wonderful climax that includes zombies stepping off cliffs and falling to new deaths without a sound.
How much Lugosi earned and how much the $60,000 or so film earned is still debated. Lugosi claimed he was only paid $800 for the role. If so, that would be criminal, although he was in poor economic straits at the time and needed cash. I suspect he was paid at least a couple of thousand dollars, still a paltry sum. Lugosi also claimed the film grossed $8 million. That's likely untrue. It was a huge hit. Gary Don Rhodes, in his excellent book, "White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film," estimates that the film grossed about $1.75 million, a lot for that time period. Rhodes also writes that the Halperins only earned $80,000 from the film.
In any event, someone made a lot of cash from the movie. The fiscal abuse Lugosi dealt with his entire career from Universal and other studios has always annoyed me. What a pity that whoever got the lion's share of White Zombie's earnings couldn't be bothered to write Lugosi a check for $25,000 or so -- a pittance of the film's profits? After all, he was the sole reason that the film was a blockbuster. Anyone who has seen the pitiful, non-Lugosi 1936 Halperin follow up, "Revolt of the Zombies," knows that all too well.
I hope that wherever the folks who profited from "White Zombie" are, they've offered a beyond the grave apology to Lugosi for stiffing him on the proceeds of the film. As a matter of fact, the Universal execs should also be apologizing.