director Victor Halperin
White Zombie, the original, very first “zombie” movie was adapted from the 1929 novel The Magic Island by William Seabrook, which popularized and introduced the idea of the voodoo of the West Indies, their forebears in African culture, and the idea of reanimated corpses under the sway of some form of the occult. Or, even, as here, seemingly reanimated corpses, people under drugged and hypnotized command.
A product of the pre-code era, it’s not especially racy. Produced independently by brothers Victor and Edgar Halperin, the film stars Béla Lugosi right off the heels of his biggest hit, Dracula (1931). Here he is ‘Murder’ Legendre, who has enslaved his white enemies as zombie henchmen and runs his plantation with black zombie slaves. When asked for help with the lovely Madeline (Madge Bellamy) by an unscrupulous plantation owner (Robert Frazer), he zombifies Madeline and plans further nefarious schemes.
It’s the eyes, Lugosi’s, that haunt the film, zoomed-in on, lit eerily, topped by an interesting mono-brow, they command wordlessly. They even command the movie poster.
I’d seen this before and hadn’t loved it, but this time through found it surprisingly well-photographed. The zombies themselves, including the luminous Bellamy, are evocative, with their freakish to vacant expressions, like images from a wax museum. Not far removed from the Silent Era, the film is at its best in scenes enacted through images and movement, without the sound. Lugosi is vibrant if stilted, not yet in caricature or self-parody (though the caricature comment might be arguable.)