Thursday, December 20, 2012

Random Movie Report #112: White Zombie

The zombie has changed a lot from its cultural origins. Night of the Living Dead and its myriad of sequels and rip-offs ensured that we think of zombies as flesh-and/or-brain-eating ghouls who travel in hordes and destroy civilizations when the word is used, and it's a powerful icon. But the original zombie of voodoo lore, the myth of the mindless servant arising from a culture which developed under the yoke of slavery, has a power of its own. White Zombie takes that central fear, the total loss of will, and expresses it in a uniquely stylish way. An early sound film made by the conventions of silent cinema, it's a fascinating mood piece that could use a little more attention.

Neil Parker (John Harron) and his fiance Madeline (Madge Bellamy) are traveling through Haiti when they first cross paths with Legendre (Bela Lugosi), a notorious criminal known for raising zombies to work for him. Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), a wealthy landowner, has long wanted Madeline and cannot bear to see her marry another. He makes a deal with Legendre to somehow bring her under his power. On the couple's wedding night, Madeline falls into a swoon and appears to be dead, but Legendre has rather made her one of his zombies. A despondent and drunken Neil is lured by visions of his "dead" wife to a ruined estate, where Beaumont struggles with the devil's bargain he has made with the sinister Legendre to take possession of a woman no longer herself.

When preparing this film, director Victor Halperin and company to the conclusion that most talking pictures had too much talk- that the arrival of sound had made the movies too static and stagey. And so White Zombie is deliberately light on dialogue and heavy on visual conventions borrowed from silent film, from visions of Madeline as a ghostly apparition plaguing the stricken Neil to slow and exaggerated gestures on the part of the actors. (Bellamy had been a silent star, and has the moon face so prized among icons of the era.) As a result the movie not only flows better, but has some of the silents' otherworldly quality.

The zombies in this film are not truly dead- Legendre's trick is one of hypnotic suggestion, visualized by Bela Lugosi making creepy hand gestures while a spotlight illuminates his eyes. The fear being exploited here is not so much that of death as the loss of self, and though the zombies are chilling they're also pitiable. The most horrific scene is one of the zombies working Legendre's sugar mill, one of  the mindless men falling into the machinery, his fate signaled by a brutal cracking sound.

Lugosi, of course, is in his element. He plays Legendre as someone who genuinely enjoys his sick work, and takes particular pleasure in having made many of his enemies (mostly lawmen) into his servants. None of the characters is developed very much even by the standards of the genre, but that's befitting the film's spare nature.

White Zombie doesn't explore its premise as fully as its early scenes suggest, and as the title implies it skips over much of the actual culture of Haiti to focus on the travails of a bunch of white folks, but it tells its own story very well. It's ahead of its time in reclaiming the flexibility of silent cinema for sound, something it took the rest of Hollywood several years to figure out. Badly in need of re-appreciation, the film is not only historically significant (both in its technical innovation and in being the first "zombie" movie) but compelling and visually memorable. It's a uniquely dreamlike experience, and I wish more zombie movies were this idiosyncratic.

Based on the novel "The Magic Island" by William Seabrook
Written by Garnett Weston
Directed by Victor Halperin

Grade: A-

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