At times, I feel like I was born in the wrong era as older films have always tickled my fancy more than modern ones. A key reason for this is that I have an awful lot of respect for artists and storytellers who “do more with less,” and many of these earlier properties just had to come up with ways to accomplish a certain sequence or effect while continuing their work. When you’re the first to do something, you have nothing you can rely on except your own creativity and the smarts of those around you; as a result, I just feel greater respect for the tapestry being woven … as opposed to today’s popular sentiment of allowing everything to be ‘fixed’ in post-production. (For the record, this also explains why I prefer smaller B-Movie releases today over the studio blockbusters.)
What this means for me as a reviewer is I have a huge, huge, huge Bucket List of titles to explore. Each weekend, I’ll spend a few minutes scrolling through the upcoming broadcast schedules for Turner Classic Movies and that Retro Movie Channel (it’s probably known by something else officially, but it shows up on my screen as just ‘Retro’); if I come across a prospect on said list, then I’ll queue it for recording on DVR. I’ll watch it when time permits. As you can guess, I have dozens of oldies saved; so long as I never die, I figure I’ll always have something to watch.
This past weekend’s entertainment was an old Horror/Fantasy titled White Zombie (1932). Garnett Weston adapted the William B. Seabrook novel ‘The Magic Island’ for Victor & Edward Halperin Productions (with Victor Halperin directing). It’s a slimly cast affair but one with a few solid names of the era: Bela Lugosi headlines and shares screen time with Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Frazer, John Harron, and Brandon Hurst in key roles. Alas, Box Office Mojo has no production or earnings information available for the film, but a trivia entry on IMDB.com indicates that the feature enjoyed success at the box office. I can only speculate that Lugosi’s popularity – clearly, his was one of the best-known faces of the era – contributed to the returns.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From Google.com: “Murder Legendre is the menacingly named zombie master of Haiti. So it’s to him that Charles Beaumont goes when he needs help for a twisted plan. Spurned in marriage by Madeline Short, Beaumont has decided on a simple solution: kill Short and bring her back as a zombie. Then she can be his forever. The only problem comes when Legendre keeps the fetching girl for himself – and her new husband comes to Madeline’s rescue.”
Truth be told, there’s a bit more world-building that takes place in the picture; as I found it relevant to the greater story, let me expand on the above synopsis.
Legendre (played by Bela Lugosi) isn’t just the master of evil who’s uncovered the secrets of ‘zombifying’ regular people. He’s used his skills to great length to exact revenge against his adversaries – as well as regular folks – and then conscripted these victims into virtual slavery, putting them to work in Haiti’s sugar cane mills. Always under his control, these soulless workers stare endlessly into the night while toting baskets, churning mills, or any other tasks deemed of merit by their master. As Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer) is one of the island’s biggest landowners, it’s clear that these two men are likely established allies whose collaboration extends far beyond what’s shown on screen.
Short (Madge Bellamy) and her fiancé, Neil Parker (John Harron), are lured to the island by Beaumont, who has not only agreed to host the couple’s wedding but also has promised Neil employment at one of his banks in the United States. This, in effect, establishes Beaumont as more than a bit duplicitous: he’s enticed the potential newlyweds to his home under false pretenses – he tempts to woo the woman from her beloved – and only after she refuses his advances is the proprietor willing to use the deadly serum to cause her death, a necessary first step on the road to sexual slavery.
It’s this seduction of power that gives White Zombie its true strength.
For all intents and purposes, we’re led to believe that Legendre – the central antagonist here – is living a grand existence. Essentially, he’s unlocked the secrets of mind control, and he’s put that magic to beneficial use in subjugating anyone and everyone who poses a threat to him or his personal empire. In fact, the master brags as much to Beaumont when the desperate man comes to see him at the mill. In addition to his factory staff, Legendre has surrounded himself with former village leaders and shakers – especially those who formerly caused him grief – a strategy that’s clearly meant a great deal to the man’s self-esteem. Who wouldn’t be thrilled with the prospect of turning your enemies into mindless grunts?
But Legendre’s thirst doesn’t end with monetary gain: he’s seen Madeline Short, and she’s a beauty! He’s as infatuated with her as Beaumont is. Naturally, this greed will prove his undoing, but not before he concocts a scheme that he believes will clear the playing field of any suitors to Short’s affections, even though there should be none once he’s wrested control over her consciousness. Love has blinded him to logic, and it’s this seduction that will cause his whole world to eventually unravel.
It goes without saying that Lugosi is the main draw to seeing White Zombie. He stares pensively into the camera like few actors before him (or since), seething the theatrical menace that’s required to make the melodrama work. Frazer’s work is solid – he conveys the frustration over being spurned by a woman nicely, and he’s pretty superb as well in numbly resisting Legendre’s power even after reduced to zombiehood for daring to cross the man. Bellamy does good work; naturally, she handles her moments of liveliness with enough zest for audiences to feel the obvious pathos of such a beautiful flower of a woman being turned into a soulless drone.
Still, I can’t help but wonder how her lethargy likely impeded her sex appeal ‘in the sheets,’ but this is the 1930’s and that kind of thing just never makes it to the silver screen.
Many have written that White Zombie is, unofficially, the first zombie film of its type. I’ve not done enough reading to know whether or not that’s accurate, but it’s certainly one of the oldest films I’ve seen to breach the subject matter. And perhaps that’s the best reason to see this one – well, despite appreciating yet one more winning performance by Lugosi. The film never shirks what it is, and director Halperin creates solid atmosphere both in light and shadows.