Monday, March 26, 2012


Director Victor Halperin’s “White Zombie” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) boasts the distinction of being the first official Hollywood zombie epic.  Mind you, the undead here are not as pugnacious as  those in the cinema of George Romeo and his imitators.  Indeed, these zombies are similar because they are undead.  Nevertheless, they don’t crave the flesh of the living like insatiable cannibals.  Like Romeo’s zombies, Halperin’s undead are mindless hulks with neither a soul nor a trace of animation.  They walk slowly without alacrity, and they never utter so much as a syllable.  They stare without blinking.  Although their presence is eerie, they are not as scary as the individual who commands them.  

Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) controls them as if they were puppets. The inspired casting of Lugosi as the insidious zombie master earmarks Halperin’s film  as a vintage horror chiller. Lugosi’s make-up augments another of his more evocative performances.  Some have argued with validity that “White Zombie” overshadows “Dracula,” and Lugosi emerges as more diabolical than he was as Stoker’s legendary vampire.  You won’t forget those intimidating close-ups of Lugosi’s eyes, especially when Halperin superimposes them over other images.   The moments when Murder is show carving statutes out of wax candles is as genuinely creepy as his intensely sinister stare.  Lugosi resembles Satan himself with his hair protruding in a widow’s peak on his forehead and his peculiar looking goatee.  Murder Legendre appears in formal attire and looks like a Catholic priest with his broad-brimmed hat when we see him for the first time in the night at the side of a road.  Appropriately enough, Halperin and scenarist Garnett Weston furnish Murder with a pet Vulture that emphasizes his villainy.   An actual vulture itself, this foul bird emits an eldritch cry that is pretty unnerving. The best moments in "White Zombie" feature Murder.

Despite the overall creepy atmosphere that Halperin forges with the zombies, the West Indies setting, and Lugosi, “White Zombie”  amounts to little more than a simple but formulaic tale of boy wins girl, boy loses girl, and boy wins girl back.  The film is reportedly based on William B. Seabrook’s novel “The Magic Island.” Essentially, a young Caucasian couple travels to the remote plantation of Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) in Haiti where they are to be married.  The first time that we see the couple they are riding in a carriage through the night.  They interrupt a ceremony in the middle of the road and learn to their surprise that it is none other than a funeral.  Their coachman explains that the natives bury corpses in the road to prevent anybody from digging them up and turning them into zombies.  Anyhow, since Beaumont met Madeline during the voyage from New York City to Port-au-Prince, he has yearned secretly for her hand, even though she plans to marry one of his employees.  Desperate to possess the girl, Beaumont manages to persuade Neil Parker (John Harron) and Madeline (Madge Bellamy) to delay their marriage until they reach his estate deep in the jungle.  

Despite his severe misgivings, Beaumont  strikes a Faustian deal with the villainous zombie master to seduce her.  The wealthy plantation owner visits Murder at his sugar mill where the villain employs zombies to harvest his crop.  One of the most spine-chilling scenes in “White Zombie” occurs in the sugar mill where Halperin shows the zombies delivering baskets of sugar cane.  The zombies tote the baskets atop their heads. They enter by means of a catwalk above a huge grinding mill that other zombies operate which grinds up the sugar.  One of the zombies loses his balance and falls into the grinder.  Of course, the zombie doesn’t scream in agony because it doesn’t experience any pain.  Halperin compounds the horror by not showing the poor fellow being ground up.  Similarly, the zombie doesn’t cry out in agony because it doesn’t experience any pain.  The scene is one of the strangest in “White Zombie.”  Initially, Beaumont is convinced that if he can separate Madeline from Neil for at least a month that he can win her over, but Murder argues otherwise.  Murder contends that Beaumont couldn’t woo Madeline away from Neil in a lifetime. Instead, Lugosi provides the jealous  Beaumont with a vial of medicine that will induce a state of death and send Madeline to her grave.  He instructs Beaumont to use only a “pin-point” in either a flower or a glass of wine.  As they descend the stairs together, the hopeless Beaumont realizes that he cannot dissuade Madeline from marrying Neil so he hands her a rose and she sniffs it fragrant aroma.  Not long afterward, Madeline collapses.

A missionary, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), has been summoned to perform the marriage.  Bruner has spent 30 years in the West Indies and is thoroughly familiar with the superstitions that guide the natives.  Cawthorn is suspicious of Beaumont’s motives.  The equivalent of a Professor Van Helsing, he comforts the disconsolate Neil during his separation from Madeline and acts as an intermediary between Neil and the Haitians.  At one point, in Murder’s house, he knocks out an assailant bent on killing Neil who had collapsed on a couch not far from where Madeline and Murder were sitting.

Of course, Neil, the grief-stricken suitor, cannot get his beloved bride out of his mind.  Halperin captures Neil’s desperation during a scene in a bar where only Neil is seen drinking while the shadows of other patrons dance across the walls.  This scene acquires a surreal quality because at one point Neil sees Madeline as one of the shadows.  He strikes up a friendship with Dr. Bruner.  Eventually, Neil wins Madeline back after Bruner and he ride to the far side of the island where they find the house of the undead. Neil enters Murder Legendre’s estate perched as it is on a cliff by the sea.  Ironically enough, in the finale, Charles Beaumont reunites Neil and Madeline when he breaks the spell that Murder has over Madeline by pushing the zombie master off the cliff and taking the plunge to follow him.  “White Zombie” concludes with Dr. Bruner asking Neil for a match as he had done when they first met at Beaumont’s plantation.