Directed by Victor Halperin and produced by his brother Edward, White Zombie (1932) is such an oddity. An early independent production, it lacked the prestige or budget of a Universal monster movie, yet has lingered in the public imagination thanks to public domain video sets and a renewed interest in all things “zombie.” With the exception of Bela Lugosi in his prime, the main cast consists of once-prominent silent film thespians who had a hard time adjusting to talkies—Madge Bellamy, for example, acts like a zombie even before Bela hypnotizes her, while John Harron (playing her fiancé) is agonizingly hammy and almost incapable of a convincing line delivery.
To be honest, the film would probably work better silent, only then we’d be deprived of Bela’s rich, heavily accented voice. The dialogue is certainly nothing to write home about; apart from a few passages imbued with Bela’s dark poetry, it’s mostly perfunctory and dull. White Zombie’s saving grace, however, is its visuals: the film’s a maze of interlocking motifs, occult imagery, and resourceful camera tricks that grab hold of the viewer. The actors don’t so much “act” as contribute different patterns to White Zombie’s monochrome textures. Vultures, shadows, staircases, the fleurs-de-lis on Madge Bellamy’s dress—each piece adds to the film’s dreamy, tragic power.
Presiding over this nightmare is Bela’s voodoo master Murder Legendre. (With a name like “Murder,” did he really the option of not being evil?) At first he’s just an ominous background figure, a magician-for-hire contracted by a jealous suitor to enchant away the affections of the bride-to-be. But over the course of the film, he comes to dominate the lives and free will of every major character. If he’s Dr. Caligari, then everyone else is Cesare. Especially chilling is the scene wherein he explains the origins of his zombie slaves: each one, it turns out, was one of Legendre’s enemies in life. Each one used to be an active, opinionated individual… and now they serve the man they hated.
The ghastly thoroughness of Legendre’s revenge infects the whole film. Haiti’s geography is reduced to a plantation, a cobwebbed castle, and a craggy countryside inhabited by souls in Legendre’s thrall, whether they’re explicitly zombies or not. It’s a metaphysically bleak film, but also a very romantic one; Harron and Bellamy’s relationship—in all its passion and voodoo-induced tragedy—manifests itself repeatedly onscreen through subjective camera techniques like this:
This is just after Legendre has snatched the young bride from her whiny lover’s arms. Distraught over his loss, Harron wanders through a local saloon and is struck by this apparition on booze-soaked table. This technique is especially impressive because it predates Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), with its famous (and very similar) swimming scene, by a good two years. Surprisingly innovative for a cheap horror movie that’s barely feature length!
I also love the impassioned gesture that follows the tabletop ghost: the heartbroken young man watches the shadows of dancers and drinkers along the saloon wall and, envisioning his would-be wife in them, embraces the shadows. It’s a pretty powerful metaphor for the pain of lost love and just one of White Zombie’s strange, touching visual details. Recycled sets and uneven cast notwithstanding, the Halperin brothers created something hazily special in White Zombie, more in the tradition of Jean Cocteau than that of Tod Browning. Hidden in bargain bins for decades, it’s an oneiric gem waiting to be rediscovered.