Sunday, June 7, 2020
Directed by Victor Halpern
Written by Garnett Weston
Starring Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Robert Frazier, John Harron
I’m not a big fan of the modern zombie. They just don’t seem to be a scary threat. But the classic zombie of Haitian legend is a different matter. And one of the first of that that genre was White Zombie.
The movie begins as Neil Parker (John Harron) and Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) stumble upon a strange ceremony as someone is buried in the middle of the road. Their carriage is later stopped by Legendre (Bela Lugosi), who takes a somewhat creepy look at Madeline then sends them on their way. They go to the house of their acquaintance, Charles Beaumont* (Robert Frazier).
Beaumont immediately falls for Madeline and goes to Legendre, who gives him a potion to give to her. He resists, but – as Legendre understands – his obsession gets the best of him and he poisons her so that she will be turned into a zombie to be his. It goes without saying that things do not work out well.
The age of the film certainly works against it, since the acting style is too stagy for modern viewers. But there is much of interest. There is a nice atmosphere of death and decay, and Madge Bellamy’s blank-faced stare as Beaumont tries to talk to her is chilling. And a lot of elements of it were taken by later horror films.
The most memorable scene is when Beaumont goes to meet Legendre in his sugar refinery. The zombies are the workers, dropping canes of sugar into a series of blades to be cut. Their blank faces – showing no emotion even when one of them falls to his death in the machinery – make it all look like a version of hell.
Lugosi is adequate as Legendre.**
The film was a big success financially, though panned by the critics. Even fans of it today may be put off by the wooden acting. But there are enough creepy moments to make its short runtime worth it.
*Coincidentally, also the name of an author who was one of the major contributors to The Twilight Zone
**I don’t care much for his acting: it always seems to stolid and wooden and lacking any sense of humor. He supposedly thought this was his best performance.