We have to make a little history here. This 1932 independent horror film is considered to be the first, full length zombie film ever released. Zombies have made a big come back in recent years, but for my money, they often rely too much on gore. Unlike the classics here in which tone suspense make up for a lack of make up know how.
Brother, do not be deceived. The make up and special effects in White Zombie would be ripe for mocking if the rest of the film were not so good. Bela Lugosi does not look like anyone you would want to hang around. His main xombie henchmen pictured above is a frightening looking man mountain, but tell the truth--you would mock him from a safe distance, right? Maybe if he was in chains? While pondering that question, also wonder why all the Haitian natives are white. It certainly has something to do with the racial attitudes of the day, but one wonders why background extras could not have been black.
Two young lovebirds, Neil and Madeleine, have reunited in Haiti of all places with plans to get married. Their plans are complicated when the two are spotted by local voodoo master, Murder Legendre. Geez, a name like that should be warning enough, but this guy is also played by Bela Lugosi. How much proof do these kids need to know they should stay away? Not enough at this point, I suppose.
Neil and Madeleine are staying at the plantation of wealthy Charles Beaumont. Beaumont has a thing for Madeleine. He cannot bare to see her marry Nell, so he strikes deal with Murder to use voodoo to make her fall in love with him. Murder says the only thing he can do is turn her into a zombie. Beaumont thinks that is better than nothing, so he agrees to give Madeleine a potion that will do the trick.
Madeleine drinks the potion. For the sake of utmost drama, it takes effect during her wedding ceremony. She dies and is buried. In Haiti. Where she does not live. Murder and Beaumont retrieve her from the tomb a little later and turn her into a zombie. The distraught Neil begins to see ghostly images of Madeleine. Once he decides it is not the alcohol talking, he visits her tomb to find it empty.
Meanwhile, Beaumont has discovered necrophilia is not as much fun as he thought it would be. Perhaps he had not thought this cunning plan all the way through. He certainly had a lack of foresight in trusting a guy named murder, because when he asks for him to bring Madeleine back to life, he learns he is being turned into a zombie, too. Luckily for him, Neil recruit’s a missionary named Dr. Bruner to assist him in rescuing Madeleine.
The climactic battle is very cool for the time period and low budget. Murder uses Madeleine to attempt to kill Neil, but she is stopped by Bruner. It is not said, but his Christianity gives him an edge against the devilish voodoo. Good thing, too, because he and neil pursue Madeleine right into Murder’s zombie army. Bruner knocks murder out, which releases his hold on them so they run off a cliff like lemmings. But the rules of cinema dictate two things; the villain must die and the love birds must be reunited. Since the Christian Bruner cannot kill Murder, (Heh.) Beaumont rebels and throws Murder and himself off the cliff. Murder’s death (Heh, part deux.) not only un-zombifies Madeleine, but brings her bsck to life. The Christian Bruner has no comment on the spiritual implications, so I suggest just going along with it.
At a scant 72 minutes, White Zombie barely qualifies as full length. However, its short run is a definite plus. The film is surprisingly tense and scary considering some of the goofy elements, not the least of which is the make up effects. Gore fans may not like it unless they have an appreciation for the history of the genre, but as a bigger fan of classic horror than slasher flicks, I am all for it. White Zombie is spooky fun with Lugosi at his evil best.
Rating: **** (out of 5)
(NOTE: I have written a review of The Wild Wild West third season episode "The Night of the Undead," which is something of an homage to White Zombie. Or a rip off, if you are not feeling charitable. Check it out and a lot of other cool stuff over at Eye of Polyphemus)