Thursday, October 16, 2014

White Zombie

With a name like Murder Legendre, Bela Lugosi must be playing the bad guy in White Zombie (1932). I guess the filmmakers thought calling him Villain McNasty was too on the nose.

Regarded as the first zombie movie ever, White Zombie predates the rotting, flesh-eating ghouls we've become accustomed to since Night of the Living Dead, and instead, it presents us with the Voodoo zombies of Haiti, the mindless slaves who perform the bidding of an evil master, their wills totally destroyed. And in much the same way a certain Mario Bava film gave Black Sabbath its name, so did this movie inspire another heavy metal band, the one that gave us Rob Zombie. How's that for a legacy?

An engaged couple, Neil and Madeline, in Haiti takes a carriage ride to the estate of their friend, Charles Beaumont, who has offered to host the wedding. Beaumont is in love with the bride-to-be, and in desperation, he turns to the aforementioned Murder Legendre, who has a plantation that he mans with the walking dead. Legendre gives Beaumont the zombie powder to use on Madeline so she'll be subservient to his will, and she seemingly dies after the wedding. Neil and a local missionary track them all Legendre's mountain castle, where Beaumont realizes that making the woman you love a zombie probably isn't the best idea.

There is one really great visual in White Zombie. Beaumont arrives at Legendre's sugar mill, and all the workers are zombies. They shuffle mindlessly, emotionless, one endless line dropping harvest into a machine while other ghouls push a wheel to grind it. One zombie stumbles into the grinder, but the process continues uninterrupted. It's such a creepy, unforgettable image, the normalization and exploitation of the monsters by a human master. It's like stepping into the underworld, a vision straight out of Hell.

A few other images approach the sublime of the sugar mill. Legendre has a pack of zombies that serve as his attack dogs, and they pick up one poor bastard and dump him into the moat where he apparently drowns (The movie is a bit vague on that point. If someone ever does a remake, the zombies ought to dump someone in a vat of boiling sugar.). The bride's funeral and her subsequent removal from her tomb by Legendre and his ghouls has an effective eeriness. The film also shows the agony of Beaumont as he slowly turns into a zombie himself, and you have to enjoy a villain who turns his enemies into his mindless slaves.

White Zombie also pushes into taboo territory. Beaumont finds himself unable to love the zombified Madeline, even though she still possesses her beauty. Without her mind and soul, she's not the same person, he says. One only wonders how he, and possibly Legendre, had his way with her before he came to his conclusion. It's not spelled out, but I think we can assume that the thought of having sex with her crossed his mind, and it's even possible that he did try something with her. I doubt Legendre would have any qualms about it. Clearly, it would be rape if he had, but I wonder if it's necrophilia.

The underlying material of White Zombie is very solid, but the execution is mixed. Apart from Lugosi, who's his usual hambone self complete with accent and stares (now with a unibrow) - the acting is terrible, dated, stagy, poor even by 1930s standards. The movie runs one hour and five minutes in length, but it drags when it lingers on the dopey romance of Neil and Madeline; they're so boring, and the movie jumps right in before we get a chance to get to know them. Plus, I'm not sure why they agree to get married at Beaumont's plantation when the impression I got is they both don't know him that well. Beaumont's love for Madeline, which should be the tragic crux of the movie, is barely shown; we're told he loves her when he goes to Legendre, and the only honest attempt of his to woo her occurs as he's walking her down the aisle. I don't know if my copy of the film is missing scenes or if these important character scenes were ever made.

I would love to see a remake of White Zombe. The Romero zombies (albeit sped up) have been in vogue for decades now, with only the occasional Voodoo zombie movie that a throwback could work. There are some buried ideas and concepts here that a new version would have more freedom to explore. For a 1930s movie, there is some twisted subject matter, including, in an implied way, necrophilia. Someone with a dark imagination could really hit one out of the park. The makers of this one mostly settled for another Dracula.

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