Scary Movies: White Zombie

With a name like Murder Legendre, how can you not trust him?

The movie this time out is White Zombie from 1932. It’s said to be the first zombie movie and stars Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre, an evil sugar mill owner who uses zombies as slave labor in his mill. The female lead, Madeleine, is played by Madge Bellamy, almost forgotten today but one of the leading actresses of the silent era. This is one of her few movies in the sound era.

Unfortunately, my copy of the movie is not of high quality. It’s not from a public domain collection or anything, where poor transfers are common–it’s on it’s own disk. It may simply be that cleaner film sources are not available. Wikipedia lists the running time as 69 minutes, but my version runs only 65 minutes. There are three or four places where the film appears to skip, as if parts of the film were spliced out (due to damage to the original film stock, presumably), which explains the missing four minutes. In any case, the missing footage doesn’t materially affect the plot.

Neil and Madeleine are Americans who have just arrived in Haiti. They intended to marry upon arriving at the hotel in Port-au-Prince, but a man they met on the ship from New York, Monsieur Beaumont, convinced them to travel instead to his mansion for the wedding. However, the mansion is located in an isolated area of the island and requires a long carriage ride to reach it.

The carriage driver loses his way and they are still traveling after sunset. They come across villagers burying a body in the road–the driver explains it’s so that everybody can keep an eye on it, so that the grave isn’t dug up by corpse-stealers. A little later on, the driver stops to ask a sinister-looking man for directions. Instead of providing them, the man reaches into the carriage and steals Madeleine’s shawl. Neil wants the driver to chase after him, but the driver points out several dull-eyed men waiting in the jungle, claiming that they are zombies–undead men with no will of their own–who belong to the sinister man.

When they finally reach the mansion, they happen to meet a missionary priest, Dr. Bruner (what’s my father doing in this movie?), who is arriving at the same time. The priest says he will marry them that very evening, provided they leave the next day, for this is a dangerous area. When Monsieur Beaumont discovers this, he claims to be in an urgent hurry, and rushes to the sugar mill of Murder Legendre, who of course turns out to be the sinister man Neil and Madeleine encountered on the road. It seems Beaumont had contracted Legendre to take away Madeleine’s will so Beaumont could make her his own. But now they must speed up their plans. Legendre gives Beaumont a vial of some medicine or poison, and tells him to put a drop in a glass of wine Madeleine drinks, or a flower she sniffs.

Back at the mansion, Beaumont gives Madeleine a bouquet as a wedding gift at a celebratory dinner before the ceremony. She inhales their smell deeply. Outside, Legendre is watching the events proceed. When he sees that Madeleine has inhaled the poison, he carves a large candle into her shape while holding her stolen shawl, and then holds the shawl-wrapped candle in a flame. Inside the house, Madeleine passes out and appears to be dead.

Neil is heartbroken that his beloved should die so mysteriously just before the wedding. After the funeral, he goes on a bender at a rundown bar in the local village, drinking rum by the bottle. At one point, he becomes so drunk and despondent he runs from the bar in tears and goes to the cemetery where Madeleine is buried. Only, her tomb has been opened and the coffin desecrated, with no body inside of it. Neil goes to Beaumont’s mansion to seek help in finding who’s stolen her corpse, and runs into Dr. Bruner, who has an idea of what’s happened. But they have to hurry, there isn’t much time to save Madeleine, for to Neil’s surprise, Dr. Bruner believes she may still be alive….

White Zombie (1932)
Story/Plot/Characters— The pacing is fairly breezy and the plot is interesting. Perhaps the pacing is even too quick–I’m not quite sure whether to attribute a couple pacing lapses or jumps to the missing footage, or if the movie would feel the same if those scenes were complete. The characters, alas, are cardboard. Neil and Madeleine are no more than ciphers–there need to be two Americans in the plot, and so there are. Madge Bellamy is cute enough (and you can tell this is a pre-code horror by the inclusion of one near-nude scene, which would be forbidden in Hollywood only a couple years later). We get a little more on Dr. Bruner, although it might have been nice to explain how he got to Haiti, or about his missionary work. Murder Legendre is really the only one who comes across as more than a sketch, as we learn how he defeated his rivals in the sugar cane business one by one, zombifying them so they worked for him. He almost comes across as the main character, and Lugosi’s acting is great–better than Dracula. (2.5 points)
Special Effects— For the time, this must have been a special effects bonanza, as it makes extensive use of fades, overlays, costumes, painted backdrops, and so forth. Obviously fairly dated today, but the sets, costumes, really just the imagination of the whole thing still come through. (1.5 points)
Scariness— Not really scary by modern standards, but there are numerous parts that could be described as unnerving. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— There is some truly haunting imagery here. The silhouettes of zombies climbing the Haitian hills, the mindless zombies eternally pushing the machinery in the mill, the native Haitians conducting a burial in the road at midnight. Full points for atmosphere and freakiness. (2 points)
Total=7 points (Excellent)

An Excellent movie, filled with haunting imagery and with a great performance by Bela Lugosi. It doesn’t quite reach the top echelon due to a cursory treatment of its characters. I would be interested to see if a cleaned-up, more complete version than the one I have improved my already favorable opinion.

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