White Zombie is not a good film. Even by the B-standards of most horror, this indie flick from '32 is sub-par. Told in a haphazard manner with atrocious acting, this film, which only survives in a choppy, fuzzy copy that makes it an eyesore to watch, is only notable because of its creatures. The zumbie, or zombie is firmly in the top echelon of movie monsters these days, but during the pre-Code days the shambling somnambulist was very minor.
In sum, White Zombie tells the tale of Madeleine Short (played by Madge Bellamy) and her soon-to-be husband Neil Parker (played John Harron) and their unfortunate trip to the magical island of Haiti. While there, Madeleine falls prey to Charles Beaumont (played by Robert Frazer), a wealthy landowner who wants the beautiful blonde all to himself. In order to get Madeleine's hand, Beaumont recruits Murder Legendre (played by Bela Lugosi), a Creole voodoo master who lives in a craggy castle and operates a sugar mill that is completely staffed by zombies. All of these zombies are former enemies of Legendre, and as such, Lugosi's character is halfway between brilliant black magician and an aggrieved teenager.
Like his other, more famous maestro of the otherworld, Murder Legendre has hypnotizing eyes and a clear conscience for evil. Even Beaumont is not beyond suffering the wizard's wrath. When Beaumont realizes that it's better to have living hatred than lifeless indifference in the eyes of his unrequited love, Legendre turns on him and his butler (played by Brandon Hurst). Ultimately, Charles and Murder both suffer the same fate as they fall like Holmes and Moriarty to the rocks waiting below the haunted precipice. The killing off of the film's two "badies" releases Madeleine from her living death, and thus Madeleine, Neil, and the missionary Dr. Bruner (played by Joseph Cawthorn) live on.
Obviously, the goal of Victor Halperin, the director, and Edward Halperin, the producer, was to exploit the success of Dracula. Not only is Lugosi's voodoo master a paler shadow of the count (although he does one-up the Romanian vampire in terms of great facial hair), but even Dr. Bruner acts and speaks like Edward Van Sloan's Dr. Van Helsing. In another coup, the Halperins enlisted the help of Jack Pierce, the make-up man responsible for Karloff's monster in Frankenstein. In White Zombie, Pierce's make-up job is much more slight and subtle, therefore nowhere near as memorable.
Compared to the actual film, the inspirations behind White Zombie are far more interesting. Inspired by both William Seabrook's sensational account of Haitian voodoo (see: "Strange Style: William Seabrook" over at our sister publication, The Trebuchet) and Kenneth Webb's play Zombie (which didn't last a month on the stage and was never published as a volume), White Zombie is a fairly accurate portrayal of how big horror business was at the time. Filmed in just eleven days on a lot at Universal Studios, White Zombie mostly used real-life zombies, i.e. has-been actors who had already seen their stars diminish since the introduction of sound.
Speaking of sound, music supervisor Abe Meyer had orchestras re-record an odd hodgepodge of classical works, from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" to Hugo Riesenfeld's "Death of the Great Chief." This chaotic assortment of sounds actually lends itself well to the film, which is disjointed anyway.
Maybe that's why people like it. White Zombie is historically important and did lend its name to one of the most unique hard rock acts of the 1990s, but in reality this film is pretty hard to watch. Clearly a case of cashing-in, White Zombie remains a film unworthy of its renown.