This movie certainly was not the best film of the 1930s by any means and is only noteworthy because it is the first film to self-identify as a Zombie movie. The film doesn’t hold up to the test of time, and while some may argue that this opinion due to contemporary viewing standards you would be wrong. White Zombie was even viewed negatively when it was new to audiences. During the film’s original release in late July of 1932 critics at the time gave the show mostly unfavorable reviews. So while the first Zombie film may not compare to the work of George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) this film certainly has gained a cult following.
Madeleine Short and Neil Parker (played by Madge Bellamy and John Harron respectively) go to the island of Hati to get married in the home of the wealthy plantation owner Mr. Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). Unfortunately, unknown to the young couple Mr. Beaumont is
in love obsessed with Madeleine and will do anything to have her. In an act of desperation, he seeks the aid of the wicked voodoo master Murder Legendre played by the iconic Bela Lugosi. The voodoo master turns her into a White Zombie so that Beaumont may have her. However, once Madeleine is zombified Beaumont can’t bear to see her devoid of humanity and pleads with the Voodoo master to restore her soul. Unfortunately for Mr. Beaumont, Legendre has “other plans” for Madeleine.
The plot of the film sounds like a thrilling story with a lot of potential, yet the final product is largely a failure. One major problem with the film was the acting, particularly the performances of Madge Bellamy and John Harron. Both Harron and Bellamy were popular as silent film actors and once the transition to synchronous sound was made their careers began to die along with the silent era. The over exaggerative body movements necessary for silent films didn’t translate well into talking motion picture and many of their lines were delivered poorly.
The movie also had some poor choices regarding sound design/editing as well. For large portions of the film, there is no musically scoring and the audience only hears “natural” sound. The lack of music in certain scenes gives the film an awkwardness at times. This unnatural awkwardness was used unsuccessfully with the intention of disturbing the audience and to create a dark atmosphere. The absence of music doesn’t seem intentional and make the film seem as though some elements are missing. The missing music also causes some scenes to appear as though they drag on for too long effectively putting the audience to sleep. When Madeline and Neil arrive at Mr. Beaumont’s and meet Dr. Bruner(Joseph Cawthorn) there is some obvious sound editing. The scene began with the sound of crickets then Bruner enters the scene as a dog is howling and the crickets stop entirely and once the dog is silent the crickets begin to sing again. It made the scene seem very artificial.
Sound issues aside Authur Martinelli’s cinematography is excellent. The film uses a variety of transitions as well as dynamic camera motion. One of my favorite scenes is when Mr. Beaumont comes to meet the voodoo master during which a tracking shot is used following him through the gates, and it gave the film a very sophisticated visual appeal. The visual elements help to redeem the film but what truly makes the film worth watching is the performances of Bela Lugosi and Robert Frazer. The movie gives these two actors a large amount of screen time and for a good reason. Many of the other actor’s performances seem flat and being next to Lugosi and Frazer only further emphasized this. Lugosi and Frazer upstage the rest of the cast and are the most compelling characters to watch. The pair is so entertaining that the audience could care less whether or not Neil saves Madeleine or not. The camera placed great emphasis on Lugosi’s intense gaze and while at times it seems goofy it was still entertaining to watch none the less.
The movie as a whole, however, is a failure, but once you consider that the film was shot in only 11 days on a shoestring budget you begin to question that assertion. While it isn’t the best horror flick White Zombie will definitely keep you up a night, keep you laughing that is.