Insomniac Cult Movie Theater: White Zombie

GhostAndy

It’s Summertime! It’s Hot. It’s Sweaty. My beagle is pacing up and down the hall because it’s about to thunderstorm.

Wow…there have been so many thunderstorms as of late. It’s almost as if the planet is getting hotter or something. Could it be…gasp…climate change? Y’know the term currently being scrubbed from government documents so that people can stick their heads further into the sand?

Alright…alright…that’s enough, Mr. Larson. You were getting a little political here, and nobody comes to the GotS site for that. It’s probably because I’m a little testy given it’s another night that I’m having difficulty falling asleep.

Mainly because of the dog. That incessant pacing and panting. I know it’s not his fault. Thunderstorms just freak him out. We even bought him a thunder coat and for the most part it works, except for those nights when an especially large one is on the horizon. Then thundercoat or not, that dog doesn’t get a wink of sleep, and his pitter patter of little feet keeps this guy up as well.

So what’s a guy to do on a dark and stormy night when he can’t sleep than watch old black & white horror movies at 2am. And for some bizarre reason I’m in the mood to watch zombie horror. Real Walking Dead kind of nightmare fuel. Because obviously nothing puts you in the mood to drift into the land of slumber more than undead corpses devouring brains! Maybe it’s the lack of sleep devouring mine, right now? We’ll see…

Anyways, for most of you when I mention black & white zombie horror, you immediately think of “Night of the Living Dead”, the granddaddy of the zombie genre directed by George Romero and shot pretty much in my backyard of the greater Pittsburgh area.

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The only problem with that is despite it being a being an absoulte fantastic movie, I’ve seen it way too many times. So has everyone else I feel, as given it’s massive cult following and public domain status, it’s easily accessible and highly popular. So writing on this movie will just see my review drown in a sea of countless other nobodys waxing their philosophical on why Ben, the only sane/rational character of Living Dead, had to be killed at the end of the movie (although it still fills me with great rage/saddess every time I see it).

So instead I thought I’d watch and talk about another zombie related picture that actually predates Living Dead by more than 60+ years. So if Living Dead is the granddaddy of this genre, then White Zombie has to be it’s great granddaddy!

So without further ado, prepare to stare into the blank eyeless abyss of this Haitian horror fest of cursed corpses starring Monster movie legend, Bela Lugosi!


White Zombie

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Background:

White Zombie is a 1932 Pre Hays code horror movie semi independently produced by Edward Halperin and directed by his brother, Victor Halperin.  It’s largely considered to be the very first zombie movie ever committed to celluloid, and contains a variety of genre tropes that are still used to this day, such as mindless blank stares and stilted gait of the zombies, the notion of raising the dead by supernatural means, and swarming style in which the zombies attack their prey.

Although a large majority of the movie was shot at Universal Studios using many of the props that would appear in other Universal Monster Movies of the time such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy, this movie was not released by Universal, and was in fact a major reason that for many years, it languished in obscurity often being considered “lost”. This and the fact that once it finally found a distribution partner in United Artists and had it’s debut, it was critically panned as being over the top and outdated, relying on silent film techniques that by 1932 just seemed not in touch with the times.

Luckily, this movie has found new life in recent years thanks to efforts by more modern audiences to reconnect with the first ever zombie movie, including famous rock star, Rob Zombie, who obviously took his band’s name as an homage to the film. As a result, the movie has now moved into official cult status drawing comparisons to the type of weird, atmospheric movies that film producer, Val Lewton, eventually made over at RKO in the 1940s such as The Cat People (which I might cover in a future movie review). Plus given this movie is also public domain so it’s fairly easy to watch as well. In fact, at the end of this article is the actual movie that you can watch in it’s entirety if you want.

In any case, unlike the more recent films on zombies that talk about some radioactive or plague type pathogen that infects dead bodies transforming them into brain eating undead, this movie explores the more traditional and historic source material for the zombie mythos which is mainly the voodoo witchcraft stories that permeated the islands of the Caribbean.

In fact, Bela Lugosi plays the zombie slave master who steals innocent people and by magical means, turns them into mindless slaves harvesting and processing sugar cane. Although these zombies aren’t exactly dead, it is highly suggested that they might as well be given they have no free will nor desires beyond the commands of their master.

The main story deals with a unscrupulous wealthy plantation owner, Charles, who falls madly in love with a girl named Madeleine during a cruise. Unfortunately, she’s both in love and engaged to be married to this fella named Neil which makes any romance nearly impossible.

However, Charles is so blinded by his lust that he makes a deal with the devil in contacting the Bela Lugosi zombie master and asking him to transform Madeleine into a zombie slave so he can possess her. So Madeleine is poisoned in order to fake her death, so that Lugosi can transform her into a zombie.

Eventually, Neil finds out about this plan and confronts Charles and the Zombie Master at his sinister fortress having to fight through his army of zombie slaves including Madeleine, in order to save her from a life of living death and sexual slavery.

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2am Thoughts and Reflections:

Clocking in at only 69 minutes, this is a fairly short movie similar to other ones I’ve covered on this blog such as “Son of Kong” and “The Black Cat, and as a result I immediately gravitated towards it. I really do love these old movies for that very reason. They don’t waste a lot of time, and jump right into the narrative. As a result, I get a fully thought out and delivered movie in the same time as it would to binge watch another episode of The Flash TV Series (which I’m currently plowing through as part of my summer time projects).

However, I feel like similar to The Black Cat, this movie does a really great job of delivering a nightmare type scenario of a innocent young couple getting swept up in the terrible machinations of sinister forces beyond their control. Plus the fact that again like Black Cat, this movie does tend to blend its horrific aspects with sexuality, something that would be squashed in later years as I’ve mentioned dozens of times before once Hollywood adopted the Hays Code for censoring their movies.

I mean it’s very easy to link in drama the notions of sex and death, as they are often looked at as the only constants in life. But in White Zombie, you get scenes that are almost as scandalous for the times as the nude swimming you see in Tarzan and His Mate.

Yup, there’s the scene of the innocent nubile Madeline, getting ready for her wedding day dressed in nothing but her bloomers. Although some may argue it doesn’t do a lick for the plot at all, and it’s just there to add some addition titillation to the proceedings, I disagree.

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It’s there to create a sense of desire in the audience, to touch upon some taboo aspect of the brain that would fantasize even for the briefest of moments on turning that young woman into some sort of sexual servant ready and willing to give into every lustful desire you might be able to think up. And of course that’s downright disgusting and tantamount to rape, but it’s still there.

It’s giving us a glimpse into man’s darkest desires of things like murder and rape, of death and slavery, the taking of free will and replacing it with mindless forced labor. It’s all there.

And as a result it’s more powerful I feel than blood thirsty zombies hungering for brains. These zombies were created on purpose and for a purpose, to serve an unforgiving master. They aren’t crazed engines of wanton destruction, they are specifically driven creatures and heaven help you if you are in the cross-hairs of whatever that purpose might be. It’s also like what would later be discussed in science fiction books of the 50s in the creation of robotic warriors for military purposes. It’s the giving of immense power to some sort of puppet master in order for him to enact whatever devious schemes he can concoct.

It has its roots far back in our psyche, which is why its probably the basis for the original zombie folklore tales in the first place. The ability of some power to steal from you everything which is human, your ability to reason and make choices, and instead force you into blind obedience from which there is no escape. Pretty powerful stuff, and this movie does excel at making that overtly creepy fear come to life.


Final Grade: B-

This is actually not the first time I’ve seen at least bits and pieces of this movie. Back when the SyFy Channel was still in its infancy as a cable network in the early 90s, they used to show tons of great black and white horror movies during the month of October as part of the celebration of Halloween. This was among the movies it played in between airings of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. I originally watched it because I knew of Bela Lugosi from Tim Burton’s Ed Wood movie and his appearance in the MST3k spoofed movie “Bride of the Monster”.

I honestly though turned it off back when I was 14 not because I was bored with it, but because I was sincerely creeped out by it. I thought I was sitting down to a goofy monster movie picture but instead I got all these zombie slaves, and I dunno, it was more than a little unsettling for all the same reasons I mentioned in the previous section.

Now finally sitting back down to watch it in its entirety after seeing tons of movies that are a lot more terrifying, it does seem more melodramatic than scary for a large majority of the picture. However, Lugosi is an absolute gem in terms of the mesmerizing master of his zombie army and the threat he poses throughout the movie as a corrupting influence is masterful. Plus his main zombie henchman played by Fredrick Peters really does establish the type of bone chilling expressionless ghoul that would later become the hallmark of main a zombie picture from this point onward.

Plus there’s this moment fairly early in the picture where one of the zombie workers staggers and falls into the sugar cane press and is grind to death, and yet the work just keeps going. That I found genuinely disturbing given some American youth might be sitting down some day to a bowl of Frosted Flakes and get a mouthful of zombie bone meal instead.

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Yes, there are parts of this movie that I feel are more than a little over the top and dated such as all the exposition with the missionary about the nature of zombies, but still I feel like for every moment like that, there’s two other moments to enjoy. That’s why I say it’s definitely better than your average black & white horror movie, and worthy of your time in watching.

So I leave you with this link to the public domain movie on line at YouTube. Here’s hoping you give it at least 15 minutes of your time. It’s at least worth that…


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