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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Day 325: White Zombie

White Zombie
Thunder Kiss '65

Zombies are totally in right now. Thanks to The Walking Dead, a rash of zombie movies, and a few real-life face-eating incidences, zombies are the hip thing. There used to be a time when you actually had to explain to people what a zombie was. Now, even little old ladies know to shoot them in the head. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, it's just hard having your special thing become pop-culture. Thankfully, there are plenty of other zombie-related things out there for the super horror fans to enjoy. As one of those zombie nerds, I've seen a lot of them. Many of the newer ones are just plain terrible, so I'm forced to go back in the past to find a gem. Might as well go all the way back to the first feature-length zombie movie, right?

White Zombie is a 1932 zombie movie starring Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Son Of Frankenstein) as Murder Legendre. In the country of Haiti, Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy, The Iron Horse, Under Your Spell) reunites with her fiance, Neil Parker (John Harron, The Invisible Menace, Street Girl). Set to be married that night, the two travel by coach through the Haitian forest, when the happen upon a burial in the middle of the road. Their native driver informs them that it prevents grave robbers from doing their unholy business. As they travel, they come across Murder Legendre, a local sugar cane baron and voodoo master who supposedly controls zombies. The driver sees these zombies and quickly pushes onward, leaving Legendre holding Madeline's scarf. They arrive at the home of plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer, The Three Musketeers, Law Men) who secretly loves Madeline. Desperate to win Madeline, Beaumont asks Legendre for help. Legendre gives him a potion that will give Madeline the appearance of death, only to rise like a zombie at a later time. The potion works and Madeline is soon buried. A depressed Neil later discovers that Madeline's body is missing from her tomb and enlists the help of Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn, The Taming Of The Shrew, Lazy River) to find out what has happened. Beaumont comes to regret his decision as a zombified Madeline shows no emotion and is a shell of her former self. He begs Legendre to change her back, but is drugged himself. Will Neil stop Legendre from zombifying the entire island and save Madeline before it is too late?

Staring contest! 123go!

White Zombie is widely considered to be the first feature-length zombie film. The story plays out as one might expect, though that is probably due to later films following the movie's lead. There is a good amount of suspense in the film and some tame action. I generally wanted to know what was going to happen to Madeline and Legendre. Legendre is a classic old-timey villain, complete with evil-looking eyebrows. His intentions were a little too vague for my liking and could have used some more attention and detail. The zombies are the traditional drugged and mind-controlled people of voodoo legend. You can't really expect to have corpses rising from the grave and eating people in the 1930s. The zombies themselves tend to look a bit silly, with some extra hair glues to their face. The movie had a fairly small budget and reused many sets from Universal's other horror movies of the time. While the small budget didn't completely hurt the movie, I think a little more money could have gone a long way.

It should be no surprise that Bela Lugosi is the best thing about White Zombie. He often channels his inner-Dracula, using his piercing glare to control his zombies. It was neat to see how the movie focused on his eyes and his hands so much. Never has a movie shows closeups of hands and been so full of tension. Madge Bellamy pulls off her zombified state very well, having a completely blank stare for entire scenes. Her large eyes and doll-like features certainly helped give her a stone cold appearance as a zombie. Both John Harron and Robert Frazer are way over-the-top in the portrayal of their characters. Certain scenes become almost comedic thanks to their overacting.

"Gasp! They're real and they're spectacular!"

Though very tame by today's standards, White Zombie is still an enjoyable horror movie. It's influence was seen in later zombie movies such as "I Walked With A Zombie" and "King Of The Zombies". The story is incredibly simplistic, but good nonetheless. There are some eery moments and a small fright here and there. Bela Lugosi is very enjoyable to watch, especially when he goes into his mind-control stare. Without him, the entire movie would have been a horror footnote at best. The zombies don't look that great, but they serve their purpose well enough. While it is not in the same league as other Universal horror movies like Dracula, The Wolfman, and Frankenstein, White Zombie is still a horror classic and can be enjoyed by many different age groups.


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