Schlock Value: White Zombie (1932)
Perhaps the one thing Bela Lugosi is known for, other than Dracula, it’s the plethora of bad movies he made over the course of his career. After captivating audiences as Count Dracula in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, Lugosi was primed to be a huge star, but for some reason, he was never able to achieve the same iconic status as his cinematic rival, Boris Karloff, who became a household name later that year with the release of Frankenstein (a role Lugosi turned down). For the rest of his career, Lugosi continued appearing in dozens of B-grade horror films and creature features, occasionally crossing paths with Karloff, before ultimately hitting rock bottom when he was rediscovered by Ed Wood in the early ‘50s. In 1932, however, the world was Lugosi’s oyster. He appeared in five films released that year, including Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, a little horror film based on the novel, 'The Magic Island' by William Seabrook. Although much of the cast was made up of silent film actors whose fame had diminished somewhat since the end of the that era, Lugosi was still a big draw, and he was looking to keep up with the red hot Karloff.
The film opens in Haiti, with the arrival of Madeline Short and her fiance Neil Parker as they prepare to get married. As they travel by horse-drawn carriage through the Haitian wilderness, they encounter a strange man with a curious gaze who manages to snatch Madeline’s scarf. Shortly after, the couple arrive at the home of the wealthy plantation owner, Charles Beaumont. It’s a bit unclear how they know Beaumont, but what’s obvious is that Beaumont is head-over-heels in love with Madeline. Not to be deterred by her engagement to another man, Beaumont heads to a nearby sugar cane mill to seek the help of Murder Legendre, an evil voodoo master, who has used his power to resurrect an army of undead slaves. This is also the strange man from before. Legendre provides Beaumont with a potion to be administered to Madeline, a potion that will make her appear dead so that she can be revived later as a zombie. Just before the wedding, Beaumont sneaks the potion into a rose, which Madeline smells. After the ceremony, the potion takes effect, and she appears to die. Once she is buried, Beaumont and Legendre sneak into her tomb to resurrect her.
Meanwhile, Madeline’s husband (and now widower), Neil Parker, spends his time drunk and depressed in a local tavern. When he is suddenly haunted by the ghostly image of his deceased bride, he immediately runs to her tomb. When he finds it vacant, he seeks the help of a local missionary, Dr. Bruner, who recalls the many rivals of Murder Legendre who are now among his zombie slaves. At this, they rush to Legendre’s cliffside castle to rescue Madeline. Back at the castle, Beaumont is beginning to regret his decision. You see, even though Madeline is living again (sorta), she is but a shell of her former self. The sweet and beautiful young girl he fell in love with is gone. When he demands Legendre to restore her to her former self, Legendre refuses, and reveals in a dramatic plot twist that he has secretly administered his potion to Beamont as well. Now, who could have called that?
As Beaumont begins his own zombie transformation, Parker arrives with Dr. Bruner to rescue his beloved undead bride. With some handy dandy Hungarian gesticulation, Legendre silently orders Madeline to kill Parker with a knife, however she is thwarted by Dr. Bruner, forcing Legendre to escape. Out on the edge of the cliffside, Legendre does some more voodoo gesturing and orders his army of slaves to attack Parker, but Dr. Bruner hops in to save the day again as he knocks Legendre out, breaking his mental control over the zombies. The zombies, under no control, march single file, straight off the cliff. When Legendre regains consciousness, he moves on Parker and Dr. Bruner, but this time, it’s Beaumont’s turn, as he pushes Legendre off the cliff, taking himself with him. With Legendre now dead, the spell is broken and Madeline is released from her zombie trance.
Despite an overwhelming negative reception in 1932, White Zombie has since been regarded a little better by modern audiences, and rightly so. Though the ex-silent film stars do struggle a bit as they work to adapt to Talkies, Lugosi is a real treat to watch as the ravishing Murder Legendre. Borrowing much from his performance as Count Dracula, he is frightfully alluring with his slicked back hair and tuxedo, this time with a curious goatee. Also like Dracula, the film manages to create an atmosphere that is perpetually spooky, with much of the film set at night, deep in the Haitian jungle, shadows draped across tombs and ancient castles. Unfortunately, it draws a little too much from Dracula.
Aside from the zombies, just about every decision made on White Zombie, from Legendre’s tuxedo and cliffside castle to the beautiful blonde damsel in distress to Beaumont’s gradual transformation into a zombie, felt like an attempt to recreate the magic of Tod Browning’s classic. Sure, all this stuff works well enough because it worked the year before in a different film, but it’s incredibly disappointing that it’s so concerned with recreating the magic of Dracula that it sometimes forgets it’s a different movie altogether. Ultimately, White Zombie is a perfectly adequate pre-code horror film with a lot to love, but it will always live in the shadow of the vampire.
White Zombie can be found as part of Mill Creek Entertainment’s 50 Horror Classicscollection and on YouTube.