Friday, 7 September 2012

White Zombie - review

1932 (USA)

2010 included on Ultimate Horror Classics SD Blu-ray R(All)

Contains spoilers.

If George Romero's Night of the Living Dead is the granddaddy of zombie films then White Zombie, a 1932 American independent horror film directed and produced by brothers Victor Halperin and Edward Halperin, and regarded as the first feature length zombie movie must be the great-granddaddy. Whilst over the top story and extremely hammy acting certainly justifies much of the criticism this film has received, this Haitian tale of the dead being dug up and brought back as a mindless shambling undead is of great importance to the zombie aficionado.

On arriving in Haiti Madeleine Short Parker reunites with her fiancé Neil Parker (John Harron) and agree to take up the generous hospitality of wealthy plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) who has not only agreed to host their wedding but has also offered Charles a future position as his agent in America. Unbeknown to Neil however, Charles has grown besotted with Madeleine on their sea journey to the island and is willing to do anything to secure her affections.

So Charles does what all good desperate over the top and hammy wealthy expats would and turns to local white English speaking voodoo master Murder Legendre played the inimitable Béla Lugosi and offers anything in return for help. Legendre gives Charles a poison and the offer to raise her from the grave where she will have forgotten Neil and will be his to worship and control.

After dying in Neil's arms during their wedding dinner, Neil turns to liquor and is haunted by ghostly visions of her. After discovering her body has been removed from her tomb, he calls on Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), a missionary of thirty years who previously warned Neil to be wary of Charles, and who now offers an insight into what has really befallen Madeleine. Dr. Bruner explains that Neil's been hoodwinked; that Madeleine is more than likely still alive and that she was administered a drug that made her appear dead so that she could at a later time be revived by nefarious Legendre in his palace in the land of the Living Dead.

'With these zombie eyes he made her powerless and with this zombie grip he made her perform his every desire.' The zombies of White Zombie are always totally under the will of their voodoo master. Combining chemicals, mind control and voodoo magic Legendre has amassed an army of zombies which he uses to run his sugar mill and to provide personal protection. As with Romero's Dead trilogy, as well as horror from the narrative one can also see influence and echoes of the time the film was made. Produced during the Great Depression at a time of severe job shortages caused partly by the industrial revolution and automation started by Ford, the zombies of White Zombie can be seen to reflect the very real fear people had that not only were jobs being taken away through machinery and automation, but that workers were facing a future where they had no choice but to become mindless low paid production line slaves.

Whilst dead-eyed, mute and risen from the grave there's a real contention that the zombies of White Zombie aren't actually that dead, and therefore aren't really zombies. Revealed but not confirmed, the zombies of voodoo master Legendre have been raised from an induced catatonic state to an hypnotic one through a strange mix of voodoo magic and mind control. Arguably Madeleine's recovery after Legendre's demise attests this proposition, but it's not that straight forward. During the climax to the film, as Legendre commands his horde to attack Neil and Dr. Bruner, Neil clearly delivers what would normally be fatal shots to the attackers body to no effect. With the heady mix of hypnotic suggestion and magic this doesn't prove they're shambling undead corpses but it all adds to the ambiguity, and is clearly a magical moment where part of zombie mythology was born.

A quick mention of the Blu-ray compilation I picked this up on. Obviously using free out of copyright unmastered print, the presentation is ropey full of noise and bad sound. I've read that there are better DVD prints even ones including extras including interviews with Béla Lugosi but it's still very watchable and probably what I was expecting from a film from 1932.

White Zombie is an important film establishing much of the canon that others went on to follow and refine. The slow, shambling, dead-eyed creatures impervious to body shots, might never have been actually dead, but this film is too integral to the myth that I'm going to give them a free pass. Whilst the acting is not particularly good, the characters one dimensional and the plot a bit hammy and over the top, it's not actually that bad a film with a coherent plot and entertaining story. The cinematography and direction gives the film a melodramatic and eerie atmosphere, and watching some 80 years on one gets a real anthropologists look into a world now long gone. Still possessing a magic that will make the zombie connoisseur smile White Zombie is comprehensively recommended, 8/10.


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