Most likely, your first reaction to the phrase “early Bela Lugosi film” will have something to do with vampires. However, the year after his star turn in Dracula, Lugosi lent his indelible talent, uneven diction and simply stupendous eyebrows to another legendary horror character: Murder Legendre, the evil voodoo master in Victor Halperin’s independent feature White Zombie. Long before George Romero lurched onto the scene, and over a decade before Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s seminal I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Halperin’s cheaply made but surprisingly effective film created nothing less than the archetype of the American zombie.
White Zombie follows a young couple, played by John Harron and Madge Bellamy (in her first surviving talkie role), as they journey to a friend’s Haitian plantation for their marriage. The friend, played by Robert Frazer, naturally turns out to have designs on Bellamy’s character, and enlists the help of Lugosi’s Legendre to turn her into a mindless body for his possession. Once zombified, though, Bellamy’s character proves an insufficient companion, and Frazer’s character regrets his choice. Eventually, Harron and Bellamy are reunited and the curse is finally broken when Frazer heroically pushes Lugosi’s Legendre to his death off a cliff. Disturbingly, Legendre’s cadre of zombies follow him, lemming-like, off the cliff.
What’s most interesting about the film at a narrative level is, of course, its establishment of the tropes of the modern zombie film. However, White Zombie also packs a remarkable amount of political commentary into its 67-minute running time. The evils of capitalism, racism, and the legacy of slavery are all neatly invoked in a pivotal scene in which we see zombies robotically turning the gears of a giant machine in Legendre’s factory. When one of their number falls into the machine’s innards, only an off-screen crunching lets us know that anything out of the ordinary has happened—the toil doesn’t stop.
White Zombie is also an invaluable example of an independently-produced film from the post-sound, pre-code era; the Halperins raised funds to film the production themselves, and through judicious use of sets borrowed from Universal (keep an eye out for one interior straight out of Dracula!) as well as rear-projection and painted backdrops, they manage to maintain a certain decadence of mise-en-scene throughout, even if it occasionally dips into campy spectacle. Kino Lorber, as usual, has done the film a great service through their restoration; fascinatingly, both restored and un-restored versions of the film are available on the Blu Ray, and looking at them both in turn is a study in the blessings of modern technology’s ability to preserve (and even revive) the cinematic image.
That said, however, the video and audio quality of White Zombie is far from perfect. Frequently, the restoration has failed to eliminate deep scratches in the film or occlusion of the edges of the image, but since most of White Zombie takes place at night in the steamy Caribbean countryside, these intrusions certainly don’t ruin one’s experience of the film.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of this Blu Ray release is film historian Frank Thompson’s commentary track, which doles out fascinating trivia about nearly everyone who appears on screen as well as invaluable historical background on the production itself, the Halperins, and the economic and artistic ramifications of independently producing a film during the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Another unexpected treat is a short interview conducted with Lugosi at the time of White Zombie’s release—though the female reviewer is rather stilted and the direction uneven, seeing Lugosi out of character will give any serious fan a little thrill, as though we’ve gotten a peek around the corner of his dressing room.
Though the film isn’t in perfect shape, White Zombie is a must-see for anyone curious about the rise and historical influences of the zombie film, and for any serious Lugosi fan. Bonus: seeing Bellamy in her silk undies before the wedding, something that would be unthinkable just two years later.
– By Lita Robinson