Review by Steve D. Stones
To the younger generation of today, White Zombie refers to a 1990s heavy metal band founded by singer Rob Zombie, and inspired by low-budget B-movies of the past. To the much older generation, White Zombie is a low-budget 1930s forgotten B-movie starring the legendary Bela Lugosi, shortly after his success in the 1931 universal studios film – Dracula. Victor and Edward Halperin produced and directed the film.
In White Zombie, Lugosi plays a sinister West Indies witch doctor named Murder Legendre who is in control of an army of mindless zombies. The zombies are in a trance to do his bidding at a sugar mill. Charles Beaumont is the sugar plantation owner who invites a young couple to the plantation to be married. He becomes obsessed with the beautiful young bride-to-be named Madeline, and employs Legendre to pull her away from her fiancé. Legendre stages a plot to put the young bride in a trance at the wedding alter to make her appear dead. The plan works, and the locals soon stage a funeral and bury Madeline.
Legendre revives Madeline in her crypt, and she is taken to a castle by the sea. Beaumont wants to love Madeline, but finds she has no human emotions because she too, like Legendre’s zombies, is in a zombified trance. Madeline’s fiancé discovers she is still alive and arrives at the castle to rescue her.
By all appearances, White Zombie has many interesting elements similar to the silent era horror films that preceded it. There are long, drawn out sequences of no sound but the crackling of the film itself. One particular instance of this is in an opening shot where a stagecoach carries the young couple to the plantation. The coach stops as Legendre walks up to the opening of the coach and stares longingly at Madeline to pull a scarf from around her neck. This helps to build some creepy tension early on in the film. The scarf is used in a later scene to place a trance on Madeline.
The film is full of many memorable creepy scenes. Another sequence in the film shows a group of zombies in the sugar mill slowly turning a grinder as they walk in a circle. The zombies wear hooded cloaks and have dark circles around their eyes. A zombie falls into the grinder as the remaining zombies continue to turn the grinder and show no sympathy for the fallen zombie.
A number of scenes show close ups of Lugosi’s eyes, which would later be used in lesser classics like the unwatchable 1936 film - Revolt of The Zombies, also produced and directed by the Halperin brothers. The 1931 Dracula also has a number of shots showing close ups of Lugosi’s eyes.
White Zombie is certainly an exercise in creating a genuinely frightening Hollywood film on a shoe string budget. Some accounts suggest that the film was shot in two weeks and only cost around $62,000. Lugosi was said to have only been paid $500 for his role. The Halperin brothers wanted to keep the dialogue of the film to a minimum by trimming over 100 pages of the script. The minimum sound and dialogue also gives the film a quality reminiscent of earlier silent era films.
For further information about White Zombie and other classic horror films of the voodoo genre, refer to Bryan Senn’s excellent book published in 1999 - “Drum’s O’ Terror – Voodoo In The Cinema.” Be sure to include White Zombie on your list of horror films to watch this Halloween Season. Happy Halloween!