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03 October 2018

White Zombie, 1932: What Scares Us

The unusual opening credits 

      Life and death, when you think about them, are still the most incomprehensible mysteries of existence; that’s why we don’t think about them if we can possibly avoid it. But of course, we can’t avoid it; but scary entertainment helps us cope with these nagging mysteries. As soon as movies began, horror films began. Audiences love to be scared, and the silent era provided many classics of horror, When sound arrived, it just added a fresh new dimension for inducing thrills and chills.
      1931 was a banner year for classic monsters. The great series began, with the release of the first sound Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1932 brought a fascinating crop of one-offs, Murders In the Rue Morgue, The Most Dangerous Game, The Old Dark House, as well as the The Mummy, another series founder. The great horror actors, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, began their long reign at the box office. 1932 also brought the first important entry in a new genre, White Zombie.
      Generally I am not a zombie fan; they seem like the most impractical, and so the least scary, monster. But this is due to modern incarnations – shambling around sniffing for brains to eat doesn’t seem like a prescription for a long reign of terror. Modern virus based zombies depend on doing things in a mob, assuming an unrealistic flow of new recruits. More importantly, they lack both the power of myth and the quality of mystery.
      White Zombie is far more rooted in actual folklore, real stories told around real firesides in the dead of night for generation after generation. Not stories about viruses from outer space or scientific explanations, but tales about people you know, friends and family members who were alive, and are suddenly dead. We wish the dead people we knew and loved could come back, and those who were so cold and still could walk among us again – or do we? Would that really be a good idea? Could it, perhaps, go horribly wrong?

The eyes are everywhere
 From its first moments, White Zombie jumps right in to the realm of horror. Unusually, there are no title cards; the opening titles display over film of a zombie ceremony, with eerie chanting and drumming. As the story begins, an attractive, perky young couple, Madeleine and Neil (Madge Bellamy and John Harron) arrive in Haiti to visit a friend, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer); they plan to marry immediately and honeymoon in the tropical paradise. They are met as they disembark by one of Beaumont’s servants (the invaluable Clarence Muse, who’s not even given screen credit), who drives them by horse-drawn coach to Beaumont’s mansion. But on the way they pass a funeral where the deceased is deliberately being buried right in the middle of the dirt road, where there is constant traffic. This is to ensure that the body can’t be stolen and turned into a zombie. Their scenic drive turns into a terror-stricken, careening gallop.

Neil and Madeleine aren't prepared for what's to come

      On arrival at the estate, they meet a scholarly German missionary, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), who has been asked by their host to perform the marriage. Instead of encouraging them, he says they should get away from Beaumont as soon as possible, as he is not the kind of man to do them such a good turn without an ulterior motive. This certainly sounds ominous.

Lugosi as Legendre, the zombie master

      We see just how ominous it is when Beaumont leaves the plantation to visit his extremely eccentric neighbor – a man of mysterious background and exotic powers, Legendre. Legendre owns a large and profitable sugar plantation. We witness Beaumont’s arrival – everywhere he looks, he sees workers toiling in absolute silence. No one speaks, no one looks at him – or anything else. The huge sugar press, run by manpower instead of water or electricity, creaks and groans horribly, but it is not as horrible as the fall of one worker to his inevitable end, again in complete silence. Beaumont is led to Legendre’s grandiose drawing room (which looks just like Dracula's castle) by a staring, unspeaking servant. Finally Legendre appears, portrayed by Bela Lugosi – and the scariness shoots up to eleven on the dial. 

The silent, unseeing workers seem to sleepwalk

      Bela Lugosi was a serious actor. He had arrived in Hollywood the previous year to repeat his New York stage success as Dracula. He had been a member of the National Theater in his native Hungary, after combat service in the Hungarian Army during World War 1. He had a great success in the role of Jesus, but he also performed in dramas, drawing room comedies, and classics, becoming quite a matinee idol. But post-war political changes made his career increasingly difficult, and he sought work abroad. Dracula was one of his greatest U.S. stage successes, and when Universal decided to film it there wasn’t any question that Lugosi would star. 
      White Zombie was the third supernatural role Lugosi essayed in 1932, but he also was cast in non-genre films, like Fifty Million Frenchmen or Broadminded. In other words, he had not yet been typecast. So he was able to approach the part of “Murder” Legendre like any other role – and he gives a bravura performance.
      Lugosi’s Legendre is a man of unknown origins who has lived in Haiti for decades, studying the culture and beliefs of the native population, and using this knowledge to amass wealth, power, and a private army of zombies. Wholly given over to evil, he has enslaved his personal enemies, one by one, and set them toiling about his estate. Beaumont knows of Legendre’s powers, and, secretly obsessed with Madeleine, offers him any reward he names to help him take her away from Neil.
      Legendre agrees to put the bride in a death-mimicking trance. Everyone will believe she’s dead. When they have all gone, Beaumont will revive her and keep her for himself.

Neil finds Madeleine's crypt empty

      As far as it goes, this plan works. Madeleine appears to drop dead on her wedding day. But instead of leaving Haiti, Neil appears to lose his mind, flitting around the countryside at night, seeing her in visions, hearing her call to him. Eventually he breaks into her crypt and finds her body gone. He flees the crypt, screaming her name, his cries echoing all over the island.

The now demented Neil sees his dead bride everywhere

      Neil consults Dr. Bruner, who explains his theory of zombie-ism. He believes it is an induced coma -- and that zombies are not dead. Meanwhile, Beaumont finds that the silent, staring, zombified Madeleine is not what he wanted at all. He goes to Legendre and asks him to lift the spell. But now Legendre, too, wants Madeleine for himself, and has his zombies kill Beaufort. 

The shrieks of Legendre's pet vulture fill the night

Lugosi’s intensity blows everybody else off the screen, though his accent was still strong enough to interfere with some lines. Legendre is a true follower of evil, reveling in his revenge, greed, anger, and power. He has not the slightest hesitation in enforcing his will on anyone and everyone, which he does through a combination of weird local herbs and hypnotism; you see his intense, commanding blue eyes everywhere. He directs his zombies through willpower alone. When Neil finally confronts him, Legendre thinks it would be an amusing idea to have zombie Madeleine kill him – but Dr. Bruner (who is a sort of second rate Van Helsing) arrives to free them in the nick of time. 

      This film has an odd, compelling quality that is not based on believability but on a connection to basic, unreasoning fears. The acting ranges from Lugosi’s intelligent evil to some pretty lame supporting characters. Interestingly, the young couple are boring in normal times, but both are striking when their lives shatter into insanity.
      Another major key to the effectiveness of White Zombie is the sound design – in fact, it’s  remarkable that there was sound design at all in 1932. But here it is, way ahead of its time – the screams of terror, the eerie silence of the zombies, the startling shrieks of animals, the crash of the waves, all woven together deliberately to create a truly memorable background of fear. In fact, you may still hear those blood chilling cries long after seeing the film.

**NOTE: I can't resist posting this photo of Bela Lugosi when he was a stage star in Hungary!

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