Horror movies can be scary in many different ways. Some are full of gruesome deaths. Others take us into a paranormal scenario our minds can’t completely comprehend or believe. Still, others are just plain creepy and make our skin crawl in wonderfully horrible ways. The pre-code era’s White Zombie, believed to be the first zombie film, has a bit of everything.
In 1932’s White Zombie, a young couple, Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and Neil (John Harron), plans to marry in Haiti. Their host, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), wants the girl, Madeline himself and seeks out the help of local voodoo guru, ‘Murder’ Legendre (Bela Lugosi). Murder uses zombies to run his sugar mill, an effective source of cheap labor with no chance of forming a union. Anyway, Murder gives Charles something that will help him win Madeline, but she will become a zombie. Charles doesn’t want to do that to her, but he knows there is no other way. Can he handle life with a zombie wife?
While this is a zombie movie, these are not the sort of zombies we see in most of today’s media. These zombies stem more from the original voodoo legends of Haiti and Africa. They are raised from the dead by voodoo, or some other means of witchcraft. And rather than shamble, rot and hunt for human flesh, they don’t do much unless commanded by their master. You’ll know when zombies are about to do Murder’s dirty work when does his zombie grip.
Though the quality of the film is not very good, there are still some fun tricks up its sleeve. I loved the use of overlaps and transparencies. Moments with Lugosi’s creepy staring eyes are always a treat, much like in his previous role, Dracula. And really, the grainy quality of the film contributes to the creepy atmosphere the film creates. It takes time and energy to make grainy images you strain to see in modern films.
I believe that White Zombie is the sort of classic horror film that can stand alongside classic greats of its time, like Dracula, The Mummy and Frankenstein. It’s creepy, has a magnificent set design and wonderfully over acted for all the fun and creeps. This could be a good first zombie film for kids, if you’re not ready for them to witness the blood and gore of Night of the Living Dead. Madeline could also inspire a great minimal effort zombie costume, if you can keep from blinking long enough.
“Your driver believed he saw dead men… walking.”