This is it, a Halloween tradition for me every year, one of my favorite flicks, and not just the granddaddy of zombie movies, but the first zombie movie. Find out why I love it, why it’s still a classic, and why it’s one of the legendary Rob Zombie’s favorites as well. More on White Zombie after the jump.
Most folks, or at least most folks of the last few generations, think about zombies, and they think George Romero is the man. Well, that’s true, he is the man, but he wasn’t the first guy to do a movie about zombies. True, he did revitalize the creature as a monster with his cannibalistic shoot-them-in-the-head bulldozer of a shambling threat in Night of the Living Dead, but he did not originate the idea of the zombie.
White Zombie, in 1932, is the first zombie film, and in my opinion, one of the best and scariest, for zombies of its kind. Here, the zombies are much closer to the legends of the islands, and the religion of voodoo. They’re not cannibals, hungry for brains, or easily dispatched by a blow to the head. These zombies are the undead slaves of an evil man who runs the sugar cane industry on the island of Haiti.
Enter a happy couple on vacation in Haiti planning marriage, when they cross the evil voodoo master Murder Legendre (is that just the coolest name or what?), played by Bela Lugosi. Bela takes a liking to the girl and horror hilarity ensues. Simple plot but surrounded by Lugosi’s amazing talent, stunning sets, and of course, the creepy zombies – the first zombie movie.
Indie Before Indie Was Cool
Contrary to popular belief, White Zombie is not a Universal Horror, along side other classics like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolfman. The movie was an independent production with a threadbare budget, but that doesn’t mean for a minute it was cheap or haphazard. Producer Victor Halperin, a director famous from the silent days, wanted to make something that would stand up to the big boys, and I think he succeeded.
Despite being independent and not related to the Universals, it looked like a Universal Horror – mostly because it borrowed their look. White Zombie was shot on the same amazing sets that Frankenstein, The Cat and the Canary and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were shot on. When you want to look like the big boys, use their toys. In my opinion, some of these sets look better in White Zombie than the originals.
I think most of the film is carried by the charismatic power of Bela Lugosi. When he made White Zombie for a rumored $5000, he was red hot off of the success of Universal’s Dracula and considered one of the most frightening actors this side of Boris Karloff or the late Lon Chaney. He may have won his stripes with the Count, but he upped the ante with Murder Legendre.
One of the lasting and scarier effects from the film is the overlay of Legendre’s eyes whenever he summoned his zombie slaves or try to exert his control over others. The zombies themselves, most in silent roles, are horrifying in their own right. Even the extras that you’re not sure if they’re zombies or not are scary.
There’s even a messed up moment in the vein of “Kitchen Nightmares,” that I’m not even sure was scripted or planned. Watch carefully and you’ll see a zombie fall into the grinding mill at the sugar factory. It’s a cringe scene for a whole different set of reasons. I still get chills, and I’m off Frosted Flakes for a few days thinking about it.
White Zombie in its time was actually quite a success. Halperin put a sequel into production in 1936 called Revolt of the Zombies, but unfortunately there were legal problems with the rights to the film. Elements of the movie were altered so it’s not a direct sequel, but it’s easy to see how it could be. If you watch, you’ll see Bela’s eyes have been lifted from the original movie to appear in Revolt.
Oddly enough, even though White Zombie is now in the public domain, there are still rights issues. Such problems reportedly prevented a remake from being made as recently as a couple years ago with director Tobe Hooper attached. Apparently the original story for the film has questionable sources.
Today, people know the name as Rob Zombie’s first commercial band from the 1980s and 90s, but only a handful of horror fans know the industrial noise rockers were inspired by the film. For me, much to some of my friends’ dismay, watching White Zombie is an annual Halloween tradition. Yeah, I love it that much.
White Zombie was the first zombie film, and not only serves as the starting point for the George Romero version of the walking dead, but also movies of its time like King of the Zombies, and another one of my favorites, Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie, which contains many of the elements that made White Zombie itself a classic. If you haven’t seen it, please do, and if you have, visit some old friends this Halloween, you won’t regret it.