White Zombie (1932) Review: The First Zombie Movie
“The Dead Walk Among Us!”
Synopsis: A young man turns to a witch doctor to lure the woman he loves away from her fiancé, but instead turns her into a zombie slave.
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White Zombie is commonly held up as the first ever zombie movie, and deserves to be watched for that reason alone. Though these are zombies of the voodoo variety, rather than the more rotting corpses more familiar to today’s audiences, White Zombie captures the horror of men without their minds – and unable to recognize loved ones.
This Victor Halperin flick features his usual romance and horror combo. As was common at the time, there’s a lot of “Magical Negro” elements; however, Bela Lugosi‘s role as the zombie master keeps things a little less racist than they might otherwise be. Still, to the Haitian natives, zombies are frightening but fairly passé – it’s only the white lovers, newly arrived to the island, who doubt their existence. (Of course, events almost immediately unfold to convince them of the truth, otherwise there wouldn’t be a story.)
Bela Lugosi is delightfully creepy, as always, but the other actors are mediocre at best. Madge Bellamy as the woman in the center of the love triangle (quadrangle?) was clearly chosen more for beauty and ability to hold a wide-eyed stare than any serious acting chops; Robert Frazer stumbles in a few scenes, and John Harron is underwhelming. Most of the zombies are also fairly unconvincing, despite how little is actually required of them.
The atmosphere of the film is well done, though it hasn’t been preserved particularly well. There’s more attention to cinematography and camera angles here than you’d normally see in a film from this time period; unfortunately, the music doesn’t always match up well with the scenes it underscores. The sets are also excellent (though I’m still wondering why exactly there’s a castle on a mountain in the middle of a plantation in Haiti). What I particularly appreciated about White Zombie was the more psychological approach to horror – there’s never the sort of gore or jump scares that modern audiences expect. Instead, the truly terrifying aspect of this movie is the human element: having your will taken away, or having to face what type of person you truly are. Now that’s scary.
Despite its importance to the genre, I prefer partial sequel Revolt of the Zombies to White Zombie. It involves a very similar story, but has a few more twists and a little more in the way of character development. Horror fans should watch White Zombie at least once in their lifetimes, but don’t get your expectations too high. It’s best if you go into it just appreciating it for what it is, and not hoping the flick is something it’s not.
Calamity Brains’ Rating: D+
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