White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie (1932) The Background:
It takes a lot of guts to create the first zombie film. While the other guys were playing it safe with the classic movie monsters, Victor and Edward Halperin were rolling the dice on their 1932 independent horror feature, White Zombie.

Bringing to life cinema’s first ever zombies — an army of mind-controlled slaves under a Haitian voodoo spell, the Halperin brothers inevitably rewrote horror history and set the standard for every zombie film through the late 1960’s.

Despite being the first of its kind, White Zombie opened to mixed reviews and was far less popular than other horror films of the decade. But the years were kind to the film and it has since reached cult classic status and created quite a legacy for itself. Rob Zombie’s heavy metal band even takes their name from the movie, which is….hey, pretty damn cool!

White Zombie features an intriguing cast, the most notable being Béla Lugosi. The rest of the cast, however, is generally made up of silent film stars whose careers had already peaked.

Critics have poked holes in the casting of this film for years, but I respectfully disagree. There’s no doubt that Lugosi is the star of the show and, at times, his performance is the glue that holds everything together. But the rest of the cast has a distinct, old-fashioned style that gives the whole movie an extra dose of creepiness.

The Halperin brothers shot White Zombie in 11 days using rented space at Universal Studios and borrowed props from other horror films of the day, such as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Contrary to the initial negative reviews, they took a unique script, an atypical cast and a little movie magic and created one of the most important zombie films of all time.

The Breakdown:

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie begins where all great movies do…on a carriage ride through Haiti. Neil and Madeleine are a young engaged couple on their way to see Mr. Beaumont, a friend of the bride-to-be. Mr. Beaumont has insisted that they get married at his estate, mainly because he’s secretly in love with Madeleine and hopes to change her mind before she takes her vows.

On the way to the Beaumont estate, the carriage must stop due to a funeral taking place in the middle of the road. The driver tells the couple that because of a problem with grave robbers, people have resorted to burying their dead under the roads, which are frequently travelled. The carriage is also approached by a group of suspicious men or, as the driver states, zombies. True to Haitian mythology, these mindless, man-like creatures are forced to work the fields and factories.

Everything is fine and dandy once they reach the estate though, except for the fact that Mr. Beaumont is plotting behind their back with an evil voodoo master, Murder Legendre (Lugosi). He begs Legendre to do something…anything to make Madeleine his. And if you haven’t already guessed by this point, he turns her into a zombie and things (literally) go to hell from there.

The Conclusion:

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie (1932)

They say you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. Never have those words made more sense than in the case of White Zombie. For all of its little flaws, there are so many great moments in this film that it’s easy to see why the original zombie movie still lives on. Whether it’s the expert use of shadow and lighting, the booming soundtrack or sometimes even just a facial expression, this film is home to some genuinely eerie scenes.

Sure, it’s old…and admittedly pretty tame by today’s standards. But White Zombie manages to strike a chord that modern horror movies just can’t touch. When the day is done, it’s not the big scares or special effects that make a zombie film great — it’s all about the atmosphere. And White Zombie spreads the atmosphere on thick. If I was a betting man, I would bet this film keeps kicking ass forever. So far, so good.

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Written by: Joe Tallman