White Zombie (1932)

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*. This is a movie that for a long time failed to get the appreciation it deserved. Such neglect came about for a couple of reasons.
*. In the first place, it was lost (or at least out of circulation) for quite a few while, only to be rediscovered in the 1960s.
*. In addition, because it’s a movie in the public domain it’s been mostly available in really lousy prints. I only recently saw a restored version in HD and it was like seeing an entirely new movie compared to what I’ve been used to watching.
*. I think it’s a very good, though not a great movie. It has some interesting camera work (especially shooting with odd frames and foregrounds), an original premise (this is usually described as the first feature-length zombie film), some good sets (left over from previous Universal films), a decent story, and a distinct visual flair.
*. Sure it has faults, but most of them are understandable. It was shot in eleven days, which is a tight schedule. The acting is hammy, but so was the acting in most early sound films. Ditto for the script, which isn’t that concerned with convincing dialogue. You can criticize it for being a bit confusing (just what is the prior relation between Madeleine and Beaumont anyway?), but it moves along at a good pace.
*. Put another way, is this any worse a movie than Browning’s Dracula? Only, I think, for not having a stronger supporting cast in Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler and Edward Van Sloan.

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*. Only one scene strikes me as downright awful, albeit in a fun way. That’s the one where Neil and Dr. Bruner discuss what to do about the situation. This is, unhappily, all done in a single long take and has one of the worst line flubs I’ve ever seen make it into a final print (Neil: “Murdered? So that somebody could steal her dead body? Ah, nonsense!” Dr. Bruner: “Ah, no, not her, uh, not her, uh, her body, yes, but not her dead body.”). Then a bit later it has what seems to be a howler of a miscue when Dr. Bruner asks for a match and Neil picks one up that’s right in front of him and says “here’s one” (Bruner replies lamely “thank you, I didn’t see it”). That’s all approaching Plan 9 From Outer Space territory. But I guess they didn’t have the time or the money to do a re-take.
*. On the other side of the ledger I’d emphasize that visual flair I mentioned earlier. I love the look of the graveyard-on-a-hillside, even though that might not be the most practical location for burying people. The first appearance of the zombie gang (themselves a motley crew) coming down the hill is also quite effective. And Lugosi’s Murder Legendre is a delightful creation, complete with forked beard and threatening, arched unibrow. It could have been as iconic a role as the Count.
*. I also love how Neil and Bruner seem to be glowing against the jungle in their bright whites and white horses. In bad prints they nearly dissolve into a white blob.
*. Is it a political film? Zombies have a way of inviting such interpretations. And this was 1932, the height of the Great Depression. So look again at those labourers in the cane mill and listen to David Skal: “The shuffling spectacle of the walking dead in films like White Zombie (1932) was in many ways a nightmare vision of a breadline. . . . Millions already knew that they were no longer completely in control of their lives; the economic strings were being pulled by faceless, frightening forces. If the force had a face, it was likely to be that of zombie-master Bela Lugosi, commanding you mesmerically. Zombies were especially handy in the present economy, for, as San Francisco reviewer Katherine Hill quipped, ‘They don’t mind about overtime.'”
*. The ending has an odd feel to it, with many of the characters staggering about in a stupor, controlled by Legendre’s curiously clutching hands. Especially worth noting are the lemming-like death plunge of the zombie crew and the intensely sinister scene where Lugosi calmly whittles away as he sits beside the expiring Beaumont. That’s one of the creepiest, most chilling scenes you’ll see in any film.

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