White Zombie (1932)

“You don’t seem to realize what this girl means to me. Why, I’d sacrifice anything in the world for her!”

White Zombie Poster

Synopsis:
A covetous plantation owner (Robert Frazer) in Haiti seeks the help of a voodoo practitioner (Bela Lugosi) in wooing the newlywed bride (Madge Bellamy) of his friend (John Harron) into his clutches.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately notes that this “impressive early sound shocker” has “marvelous visuals, some that are extremely poetic” — much “like something from a classic silent horror film”. Indeed, director Victor Halperin employs an astonishing array of creative visual techniques in his telling of this spooky “fairytale”, which possesses thematic parallels with “Snow White”: just as “Snow White tasted the poisoned apple, Bellamy falls victim to a poisoned rose”, and must be “roused” awake by her lover. There are many “lengthy non-verbal passages in which the emphasis is on character movement, set design, creating atmosphere through light and shadow, and music (there’s a fine, varied score)”; in general, if there’s a way to frame a scene creatively, Halperin does so. Lugosi — with truly wicked eyebrows and goatee — is note perfect in the lead role as evil Murder Legendre (that name!); watching him carve voodoo dolls of his victims out of candles is truly chilling. As Peary notes, while “some scenes are static, [and] others silly”, this “‘sleeper’ is guaranteed to please the true-blue horror fan” — and, I would argue, most all-purpose film fanatics as well.

P.S. A number of classic horror fans have pointed out this film’s historical relevance as the first appearance of zombies on film — and it’s certainly an atmospheric precursor to Val Lewton’s RKO horror classics as well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre
    White Zombie Lugosi
  • Truly atmospheric sets, cinematography, special effects, and framing
    White Zombie Framing
    White Zombie Cinematography
    White Zombie Effects
    White Zombie Sugar Mill

Must See?
Yes, as an historically relevant and most enjoyable early horror film.

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One Response to “White Zombie (1932)”

  1. A must for its place in cinema history.

    I’ll admit that director Halperin does a rather fine job (esp. with some of the visuals) – and the film does get better as it goes (it’s only about 66 minutes). Overall, I’m less enthusiastic, though I recognize the film’s influence as horror.

    The print I saw was not the best – I actually had to strain to hear some of the dialogue.

    But, as I said, the film does gain power in its latter scenes. I especially like the very strong sequence between Lugosi and Frazer in which Frazer, in a very weakened state, valiantly (and wordlessly) attempts to dissuade Lugosi from carrying out more evil deeds, while simultaneously resisting turning into a zombie himself.

    There is also poignant, gothic beauty in the shots of Bellamy wandering here and there in a white, somewhat diaphanous gown that flows freely in every direction.

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