In an occasional attempt at understanding a bygone era in filmmaking, I’m going to produce weird essays and audio / video deconstructions of old horror flicks. The first movie in this bizarre series: 1932’s White Zombie, starring Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi. ‘White Zombie’ is probably more well-known as a band than a movie, so it was kind of interesting taking a look at this kind of forgotten black-and-white classic. (Also, on a side note: For some reason, I figured out in editing that I said Madeline in a way only befitting of a cute cartoon book / cartoon character. All apologies.)
Most of you will probably associate the term White Zombie with the band of the same name, but White Zombie is much more than a theatrical mid-90s alt-metal band. Though in the title, zombies play a very small role in the film, but this 1932 flick is largely considered the first feature-length zombie movie, and at 65:23, it barely constitutes a movie.
Now, the question we might ask ourselves is why young Robert Cummings would name his band after a seldom watched, critically-panned horror film of the early 30s. Perhaps because it has clear symbolic value – a “white” zombie would be kind of like the white knight of the undead – or maybe it’s just a cool, two word Bela Lugosi horror movie.
Either way, White Zombie is important on a few cultural levels.
White Zombie – the movie – was directed by brothers Victor and Edward Halperin, independent auteurs who reportedly paid Lugosi as low as $500 for the week’s work. Strange, too, are the reasons behind why Lugosi would pick such a movie from unproven directors. He was at the height – at the zenith – of his popularity in 1932, having just starred in Dracula the year before, so perhaps it was the momentary national obsession with the occult spurred him to star in this bizarre little movie. We also cannot underscore just how un-picky Lugosi seemed to be about his roles.
The movie is based on a book called “The Magic Island,” written by a little-known author named William Seabrook. Seabrook himself was an interesting fellow. After being gassed fighting in World War I, he took a job as a writer for the New York Times and then later scribbled away down in my neck of the woods at the Augusta Chronicle.
He was a writer and explorer, kind of like the Bill Bryson of his day. One of the more indelible experiences of his life – tasting human flesh – happened while he was on a trip to Africa, and though he experienced the unique thrill of chowing down on someone of his own species, he was probably chagrined to know that the meat was from a man who had recently died but was not murdered. His verdict: it tastes like veal. Yup. So every time you have the veal parmigiana from the little Italian place on the corner, just know what it closely resembles.
Seabrook also had the distinct honor of having world-class crazy person and black magician Aleister Crowley stay with him, which he later turned into a book entitled Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today. This is separate from his meditation on the occult in 1929’s The Magic Island, the aforementioned inspiration for White Zombie.
There was really nothing Seabrook wouldn’t do for a story, including become a raging alcoholic. He was such a profligate drunk, in fact, that he had to be committed in 1933 to be treated, a not too common practice back in the day. He even turned the story of his ravaged body and psyche into the 1935 bestseller, Asylum. He’s an interesting dude, and though his books are out of print, you can find them on Amazon or eBay for nearly one hundred dollars a pop.
But enough backstory. What about the movie?
First of all, I have to get this out of the way: White Zombie carries not-so-adorably old-fashioned stereotypes about African-Americans, and it ignores the real suffering of black people being enslaved to work on sugar cane plantations in order to tell the story of a weird love triangle. Still, it is kind of comforting to know that the villain is a white Romanian dude, and I guess the movie is a 1930s attempt to make a statement on white imperialism and slavery, however clumsily done.
Okay, so this flick is about a very white, very happy couple vacationing in Haiti for the sole purpose of getting married, and guess what: they decide to do their nuptials in the house of a man who is madly and very obviously in love with the main character, Madeline.
The soon-to-be-wed Parkers, played by Madge Bellamy and John Harron, are interesting enough – Harron’s career skyrocketed after his older brother, also an actor, died in a mysterious shooting death that is believed to be a suicide – but the real draw here is Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, who plays the inconceivably named ‘Murder’ Legendre. Yes, probably pronounced ‘legendary.’ Or ‘legend-ree.’
Lugosi, wearing a cape and sporting a devilish, forked goatee, mangles his English as ever, and this time, he plays not a love-sick count from another country, but a ruthless slaver. He is basically the Dr. Faustus of this movie, making bargains for no other reason than – I guess – he’s an evil asshole who is not content just enslaving undead human beings.
The movie plays heavily on the symbolism, too. Very obvious symbolism. At one point, a buzzard appears above Lugosi’s head. Buzzards, you know. The creatures that feed on death and misery. Not only that, Beaumont, the jilted lover, gives the bride a poisoned rose, after which Lugosi kills her by burning and then extinguishing a candle. Symbolism, yo.
After Madeline drops dead, Neil, rather than return to America in his grief, heads to a nightclub to get hammered. There, his dead fiancee haunts him by calling his name.
Then we get some hammy acting from Lugosi, as he and Beaumont encounter the five zombies who seem to be in every other scene of the movie. Lugosi obviously garbles the English language, but it’s easy to see how magnetic a presence he was, even in a subpar flick. He owns every scene with his vaguely unsettling sneer and arch, stiff movements.
Beaumont, Lugosi (or “Murder Legendre”), and his henchmen steal Madeline’s coffin and corpse, just as Neil shows up to see her body.
Neil visits a preacher / doctor named Bruner who doesn’t believe in zombies (even though they’re wandering around Haiti like stoned frisbee players) and they come up with a plan that I still can’t quite figure out. Meanwhile, Beaumont and zombie-Madeline retire to what looks like a medieval castle on the coast of the country. It is apparently Murder’s (Lugosi’s) castle.
Beaumont immediately grows disenchanted with his zombified, Frankensteinian girlfriend – big surprise there – and demands that Murder (Lugosi) turn her back into a human. Not that Murder (Lugosi) minds all that much. No big deal. In fact, he’s so happy to undo the thing that he just did with apparent, evil glee that he calls for a celebratory glass of wine…which is – of course – poisoned with zombie juice. Beaumont is horrified and shocked, but – should he be?
Here is the point where it is revealed – one might say inexplicably – that Murder (Lugosi) has “plans” for Madeline, a twist even I didn’t see coming. The most consistent aspect of Murder’s (Lugosi’s) personality is that nothing he does makes any conceivable sense. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when Lugosi decides to keep Madeline and kill Beaumont. Why? Who cares? He’s evil! Forked goatee, remember?
And I’m going to pause this plot-filled review to give you a little background on our star, Mr. Lugosi (or Mr. Murder, bwahahahaha). Bela Lugosi was born Bela Blasko in what is now Romania. He was an actor in his native land (then Hungary) and, after the failed Hungarian Revolution, fled to Germany for several years before finally coming to America. He first played his signature role as Dracula in a Broadway adaptation before starring in the now-iconic 1931 version.
It is rumored that Bela Lugosi was not the first choice to don the black cape and that Lon Chaney, Sr. was originally meant to play Dracula, but it’s not clear that this could happen for two reasons: (1) Chaney was still under contract with MGM but was trying to leave the studio and (2) he died of throat cancer in 1930, the year before the movie’s eventual release.
As it turns out, Lugosi was perfect for the role. Let’s not forget that the original Dracula – Vlad the Impaler – was Romanian, so Lugosi’s choppy English gave it a weird sort of verisimilitude. The movie was widely criticized, in part because apparently the director – recovering alcoholic Todd Browning – could barely keep it together during filming, but nevertheless, it was a rousing success. The film sold 50,000 tickets in two days and helped spark the Universal Pictures monster craze of the 1930s.
After Dracula made him a star, he starred (or was billed second to Boris Karloff) in several other horror films, including Murders in the Rue Morgue and – of course – White Zombie. Sadly, even though Lugosi auditioned for roles outside of horror, it’s apparent he was typecast after Dracula, and after Universal changed management and direction in 1936, Lugosi was knocked largely out of the spotlight. He continued to make movies, though the budgets and his star dwindled over the next two decades.
Lugosi became severely addicted to morphine and ended his career by playing numerous roles in B movies made by Ed Wood, a fact wonderfully documented in Tim Burton’s film of the same name. He died of a heart attack at the age of 73 and was buried in one of his cloaks, not at his own insistence but because his son thought it’s what he would want. His family even lost a lawsuit to Universal in the 1970s, which stated that a celebrity’s likeness rights could not pass to the heirs, so Universal was able to stick it to Lugosi one last time…from beyond the grave!
Now, back to the movie…
Neil and Dr. Bruner approach the castle, and they encounter a witch doctor (who I’m pretty sure is in blackface) who refuses to go with them. Meanwhile, Murder (Lugosi) is keeping Madeline hostage, for no apparent reason. They don’t quite convince me that he has any carnal attraction for her, but I suppose that’s what we are supposed to believe, but it could just be a reason for him, Madeline, and Beaumont to be in the castle at the same time for the movie’s climax.
Beaumont drools all over his wine as Murder (Lugosi) smiles over him. He carves a figure out of wax and taunts Beaumont, who awaits his awful fate.
Neil shows up, and Murder (Lugosi) makes his weird hand-clasping gesture, which apparently is how he controls his zombies. (It kind of contradicts the idea that it was a potion that creates the zombies, but whatever.) He tries to get Madeline to kill Neil, but someone grabs the knife, and she wanders outside to the edge of a cliff overlooking the water. That’s called foreshadowing.
Poor Neil can’t quite figure out what’s wrong with his love, and a whole gaggle of the undead appear, presumably to take Neil out. Bruner conks Murder (Lugosi) on the head, and the zombies all tumble over the side of the castle, to their undeaths. Beaumont sacrifices himself to kill Murder (Lugosi), and they, too, meet their fates with the rocks below.
For no reason whatsoever, Madeline awakens from zombiedom and becomes human again. Happy ending. End of story.
I have to say, White Zombie is only ostensibly about zombies. It’s really a weird, death-obsessed love triangle involving sad white people. It’s actually more of a mad scientist movie, or a movie about black magic than about zombies. This is on par with the times, however, since the modern style zombie flick wouldn’t emerge for another few decades.
Still, it’s kind of an interesting historical document, if not a good movie. Bela Lugosi is compelling to watch, and you can tell your friends you saw the inspiration for the name of a kick-ass metal band.