Some years ago I attended an academic panel on zombie films that made White Zombie (1932) sound like one of the most fascinating examples of the genre ever to be released, and I duly put the film on my "must-see" list. Sadly, the analysis offered by the panel was better than its source material, as sometimes happens when a particularly talented scholar takes a fancy to a rather mediocre text. White Zombie is not the quintessential classic zombie film, nor does it measure up to the level of Val Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie (1943), but there are some gems in its mixed bag, especially for those who really adore the performances of Bela Lugosi.
The plot hinges on the unrequited love of Monsieur Beaumont (Robert Frazer) for the lovely Madeleine (Madge Bellamy). Beaumont lures Madeleine and her intended husband, Neil (John Harron), to his estate in Haiti with promises of friendship, but secretly he hopes to steal the heroine away from her beloved. When his efforts fail, he enlists the aid of diabolical witch doctor Legendre (Bela Lugosi), a deal with the devil that Beaumont soon comes to repent, since Legendre's only way of solving problems it to turn people into zombies. Neil teams up with the local missionary, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), to uncover the treachery committed by Beaumont and the black magic perpetrated by Legendre, and various scenes of suffering, horror, and poetic justice ensue. The whole thing was filmed in just eleven days, using sets leftover from other movies, including Dracula (1931), and the speed with which the picture was literally thrown together accounts for the thinness of its plot and many of its other weaker points.
The weakest aspect is the appeal of Madeleine's true love, Neil. Harron's performance is silly and stiff, and he doesn't really do much except stumble around and cry out for his lost bride. Honestly, the plot could have worked just fine without him, since the more competent Dr. Bruner drives all of the real heroism. If Madeleine's love for Neil is meant to be an example of amor vincit omnia - "love conquers all" - then it fails to convince its audience of it, which is a serious fault indeed. Nosferatu (1922) had managed a much more compelling depiction of the idea a decade earlier, and without the benefit of sound, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) had also effectively conveyed romantic pathos in a silent horror film, so White Zombie ought to have been able to do more with its persecuted lovers, too. The scenes that focus on the young couple tend to drag because of this lack of depth, and that makes the entire opening of the film rather slow, since the lovers get the bulk of the attention for the first several minutes.
Other aspects of the film could also be better. White Zombie is considered important because it is the original zombie movie, but the zombies themselves need to be given more thoughtful emphasis. More could have been done with the enslaved zombie workers, whom we see only briefly at work in the sugar mill, and more could have been made of the six former enemies who make up Legendre's personal zombie guard. There are great stories behind each of those characters' fates, and the dialogue at one point suggests that they might one day redeem their souls and tear Legendre to pieces, but no fulfillment of this tantalizing idea develops, since the zombies are all made to drown themselves by the missionary in order to weaken Legendre's power. That scene creates a terrible problem for the alert viewer because Dr. Bruner has already said that the zombies are not really dead, and Madeleine can be rescued from her zombie state, so drowning the zombie guards starts to look suspiciously like murder. It would have been more consistent to kill all the zombies, Madeleine included, or to save them all, but the picture seems to want to have it both ways.
The movie is not, however, a total wash, and there are reasons for its cult status among certain horror fans today. Robert Frazer's performance as the jealous, tormented Beaumont is quite good, especially in the later scenes, where he writhes in agony as Legendre slowly transforms him into yet another zombie slave. He is a complicated, multi-faceted character, whom we both abhor and pity over the course of the story. Madge Bellamy's Madeleine is as lovely as a moth in her trailing gauzy gowns, and we can see why all of the men, Legendre included, desire her, even in her zombie state. The best moments, though, belong to Bela, and really I think he's more menacing here than he is in Dracula. Legendre is more alive, more thoroughly masculine than the vampiric count, and Lugosi plays him with delightfully horrible expressions that fully convey the villain's sadistic, demonic nature. If anything, we need more of him in the movie, and he ought to have a better death scene, preferably one that brings to fruition that warning about the zombies tearing him to pieces.
Despite its flaws, White Zombie is an educational experience for the patient student of horror history, and it makes for an interesting comparison with other early horror films, particularly with Dracula, which suffers from some of the same problems but enjoys far more fame and glory as its legacy. The well-known heavy metal band led by Rob Zombie liked the movie so much that they named themselves after it, and scores of zombie movies that came afterward can trace their heritage back to it. Those who want to see it without investing any money in it will be glad to know that White Zombie is in the public domain, which means that legal versions of the entire film can be watched on the internet for free.
See more of the great Bela in Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and The Wolf Man (1941), and don’t miss his wonderful performance in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Director Victor Halperin is obscure today, but he did helm Supernatural (1933), starring Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott.
An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.