|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|
|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|
|The silent, unseeing workers seem to sleepwalk|
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.
|Neil finds Madeleine's crypt empty|
|The now demented Neil sees his dead bride everywhere|
|The shrieks of Legendre's pet vulture fill the night|
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.