Along with the pandemic film, which for obvious reasons seems to be especially prevalent in these trying times, its close cousin, the zombie movie, is also emerging from the graves. Several years ago, J Malcolm Stewart briefly discussed the zombie film in a guest article for HorrorAddicts.net (link below) and discussed White Zombie in passing. However, considering the fundamental importance of the film to horror history, a more in-depth look at the film seems to be needed.
Inspired by The Magic Island by William Seabrook, the film stars Bela Lugosi as the powerful Murder, practitioner of potions and religions. The film follows Madeleine and fiancé Neil, who upon meeting by chance in Haiti, are to be married at the plantation of their wealthy friend, Charles Beaumont. However, madly in love with the young lady, Charles, visits Lugosi’s mesmeric Murder, who convinces Charles to transform her into a zombie. Once returned to somnambulistic life, Charles can do away with her at his will. It’s a simple script, all in all, and very much a product of the time, where even supernatural films were often dominated by romantic love-stories.
Some context is definitely needed to explain quite a few decisions with the film. Especially prominent in the final twenty minutes or so, is the prevalent absence of dialogue, where much of it plays out in prolonged silent sequences. This is partially explained when we remember that the film was released in 1932, only five years after synchronised sound was first applied to a feature film with The Jazz Singer in 1927. Britain only got its first talkie with Hitchcock’s Blackmail in 1929, an intriguing film with both silent and talkie versions. Anyone in the mainstream film industry at this time, unless they’d just started working there, wouldn’t be too familiar with talkies, and the conventions that synchronised sound would bring. You can still see these longer, quieter sections of film even in Dracula the year before. The world is still partially in the silent mindset.
This may also explain some of the over-acting in the film. If you’re used to working in a medium where facial expression is the primary way of getting information about a character across, it lingers like an accent. You can also see this in early television when theatre actors made the crossover into television for small parts. Even the framing, without a fourth wall, would replicate the theatre. This isn’t an excuse for the overacting, but a reason nonetheless.
One of the main reasons for the film’s enduring grip on the public consciousness must undoubtedly be Bela Lugosi. An incredibly accomplished screen actor by this time, and with the name of Dracula forever attached to him even a year later, managing to grab Lugosi for a starring role would have been a big step for the film. It might possibly have secured them a great portion of the very small budget, if they attached him before going into full production (that part I don’t know, admittedly, and is pure speculation on my part). We should never forget that, as well as being a classic horror movie, this could easily be regarded as a ‘Bela Lugosi’ movie; the star power of the man helping to shape our understanding of this film for years to come, as it fits into more than just one categorisation of film history outside the standard, mainstream concept. Lugosi is the great redemption of the movie, in all its $50,000 budget, eleven-day shoot, all-shot-at-night production glory. Sets were used from other Universal productions, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc, because of the restricted budget as an independent film. Because of this, it’s very easy to see the film as a Lugosi film first and foremost in terms of academic interest, but don’t be fooled.
The world is at the beginnings of mass globalisation at this time, with technology rapidly advancing throughout the globe. Interest in other cultures comes in fits and starts, such as the Egyptology craze that Stoker tapped into in The Jewel of Seven Stars (a link for the interested to my article on Queen Tera from this novel is found at the end). This, combined with a need to tap into new and fresh fears from writers and creators, probably all helped to kick off a new interest in Voodoo. The topic had been all the rage the few years prior, with playwright Kenneth Webb attempted to sue for stealing the name from his play, Zombie, though nothing came of it. Thankfully for us, because otherwise, we might not have the word ‘zombie’ bandied about in titles so readily nowadays, if the same man could sue over and over again for use of the word and be fairly sure of cashing in.
Haitian Voodoo (which is the branch of Voodoo associated within the film, to my brief knowledge) is a real set of beliefs, though not as much in the realms of mesmerism and evil as Hollywood blockbusters (and, probably most notably, Wes Craven’s film The Serpent and The Rainbow) would have you believe. This has never stopped filmmakers taking something seemingly ‘other’ and turning into something horrific, however. This has, of course, been the trend in global storytelling since the beginning of time, that what we do not understand is inherently frightening. Here, multiple strands associated with various parts of the world compose factions of the same belief in an all-powerful being who communicates with the world through spirits, and that by communicating with these spirits (loa), one can communicate with the presence of the all-powerful Bondeye. To this end, only a very small fraction of the religion concerns itself with the creation of zombies, though this is in principle part of the belief system.
This zombie creation is used metaphorically to highlight the racial inequality present in society at the time (though perhaps it is still pertinent even today). Note that the film takes place largely around a plantation and that the shambling zombies of the locals are used by Murder to work the mills. In one scene that tracks through the men, used as little more than cattle to work for the light-skinned Lugosi, the grinding wheels and machinery could be almost taken to sound like the groans of the trapped souls. The very idea of a white man using practices brought about by a largely black community (even more apt as Voodoo has its early origins in Africa, especially the French colonies, hundreds of years ago), for his own gain at the cost of those of a different skin complexion, could be read to have serious racial undertones. Even the name of the film, White Zombie, brings these two worlds together in an explicit binary. You can enjoy the film perfectly without recognising all of this, but the fact that it is there should be borne in mind.
White Zombie, can be seen as the beginning point for two branches of horror tradition; that of zombies, and of Voodoo. Most zombies would continue to exist in this mesmeric guise until George A. Romero came along in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead and re-crafted the concept into the shambling hoards of the undead after our flesh which we are familiar with. And it’s safe to say that the Voodoo strains in folk horror and beyond wouldn’t be nearly as strong without this film to prove that it can, just about, work. White Zombie is a fun, surreal 70 minutes that I’d encourage any fan of classic horror, or scholar of generic traditions in cinema, to seek out, if only to know what the hell Rob Zombie’s old band was named after.
-Article by Kieran Judge
-Link to Stewart’s article on zombies and the 80’s Voodoo films: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/guest-blog-black-zombie-hollywood-and-the-80s-voodoo-revival-by-j-malcom-stewart/
-Link to my own article on Queen Tera in The Jewel of Seven Stars: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2018/09/05/odds-and-dead-ends-resurrecting-the-queen/
Blackmail. 1929. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. UK: British International Pictures.
Dracula. 1931. [Film] Directed by Tod Browning. USA: Universal Pictures.
Frankenstein. 1931. [Film] Directed by James Whale. United States of America: Universal.
Night of the Living Dead. 1968. [Film] Directed by George A. Romero. USA: Image Ten.
Rhodes, G. D., 2001. White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc.
Seabrook, W., 1929. The Magic Island. USA: s.n.
Stoker, B., 2009. The Jewel of Seven Stars. United States of America: Seven Treasures Publications.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 1923. [Film] Directed by Wallace Worsley. USA: Universal.
The Jazz Singer. 1927. [Film] Directed by Alan Crosland. USA: Warner Bros.
The Serpent and The Rainbow. 1988. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. USA/Dominican Republic/Haiti: Universal.
Webb, K., 1930. Zombie. USA: s.n.