The opening credits flash as drums beat, voices shriek, two dozen Haitian men and women dig a grave in the middle of the road. The working bodies collectively part as a carriage carrying two Americans, Neil Parker (John Harron) and his fiancé Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy), meanders down the unpaved rode. Startled and confused, the two recent expatriates seek an explanation from their driver. He informs them that they have just driven through a funeral, explaining that gravediggers chose the middle of the busy road as the final resting place for the body so no one would dig up the body to perform voodoo rituals upon it. A pair of piercing eyes, belonging to the one and only Bela Lugosi, flash on the screen. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie has begun.
Hailed as the first feature length zombie film, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) is a true classic, the genesis of the nascent zombie genre. However, this is not your common DNA-altering-virus-28-Days-Later-craving-flesh-and-brains type of zombie, but something much more insidious. Drawing upon The Magic Island, an anthropological study of Haitian Voodoo practices called written by American traveler William Seabrooks, Halperin’s zombies are grounded in Haitian occultism. The film itself follows a love triangle between the two Americans Neil and Madeleine, as well as Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) who is in love with Madeleine. So in love with Madeleine is Beaumont, that he decides to consult a white voodoo master by the name of Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi). And oh boy does good ole Murder have a good ole plan to make Madeleine Beaumont’s lover!
From start to finish, White Zombie, is somewhat indescribable. Hallucinatory, melodramatic, eerie, comical. It reminds me of when I listen to early punk music like The Runaways and hear Joan Jett’s screaming in “Cherry Bomb”. It’s sort of half-singing half-yelling but fully revolutionary. Having no other female voices to base her own style off of, as she began her career at the beginning of the punk music scene, you can feel the vulnerability and originality in her voice as she is beginning to carve out punk music. Her style sounds weird because no one has ever done it before.
This is how I feel when I watch White Zombie. It flounders a bit. It’s unsteadily walks the line between Pre-Code Hollywood romance and something totally new, something totally revolutionary. It’s a movie on the cusp of something great, something that would go on and inspire hundreds of films after it. Not only is it the first zombie movie, it is a movie that goes on to define what a zombie is and why we should be afraid of them. In White Zombie, Bela Lugosi practices Haitian voodoo on locals, turning them into mindless servants forced to work plantations and factories. “Servant” is inadequate. These zombies are slaves. Halperin includes haunting images of mindless workers laboring on repetitive tasks under their white overseers.
And in a post-slavery and post-colonial society, how are we supposed to situate a film like White Zombie? A film where wealthy, white colonists use Haitian voodoo to turn blacks into slaves? How do we view a film that takes the Haitian myth of the zombie and turns it into a Hollywood romance blockbuster? To be honest, I don’t know. But if there is something that I do know, it’s that White Zombie is a great film, even if not for the reasons it set out to be.
But as important as White Zombie is when looking at the beginnings of the zombie genre, White Zombie is a cornerstone film in the study of colonization as seen through the medium of film, of the Pre-Code Hollywood era, of American’s interactions with “Third World” societies. Halperin has made a masterpiece, proving that using horror to ask questions of ourselves and of our interactions with the world is the pinnacle of what the genre has to offer, even if these questions are asked with an unsteady, half-singing, half-yelling voice.
Review by: Alex Schultz