Monday, October 01, 2012

“Before we get through this thing, we may uncover sins that even the Devil might be ashamed of.”

Yeeaaaahhhh buddy! October returns and once more its time to open up the dusty doors of Castle RMWC to a month of horror, the macabre and the weird. Well, more weird, at least. This year will continue the tradition of mixing in new stuff with old, significant and often overlooked pieces from the past, and pure schlock. Thus, I bid you welcome. Enter freely and of your own free will, as we spend the month dancing with the weird.

I miss Voodoo zombies. Zombie. Zuvembie. Xombi. Zombi. You know, OG Zombies.

So why not go back to the source? 1932’s White Zombie is pretty much the first feature-length zombie movie, and the granddaddy of every other walking dead movie made. Rob Zombie’s band was named after this movie, so there's that going for it.

A young couple arrive at a Haitian plantation. It belongs to a mutual friend, who is also the third wheel in a love triangle who schemes with a sinister local mystic to take the woman for himself. After getting friend-zoned one last time, the plantation owner goes through with his plan, slipping the bride a potion at the wedding dinner that slips her into a death-like trance. Distraught and drunk, her widower finds her tomb empty one night and starts investigating, while the plantation owner begins having second thoughts about his deal with the mystic, since his beloved has been transformed into a zombie.

Charles Beaumont: Robert Frazer plays the jealous plantation owner. It was his suggestion for the couple to have the ceremony at his Haitian mansion, where he not-so-smoothly tries to woo Madeline away from her fiancee right before the wedding ceremony. Beaumont is unhealthily obsessed, and he eventually realizes this, seeing as the raw deal he makes transforms Madeline into an emotionless puppet not even under his control. 

Neil Parker: John Harron plays our hero. He works for a bank and is incredibly in love with his fiancee. To be honest, he only gets interesting after Madeline’s “death.” Then he becomes a drunk, alternating between drinking his sorrows away in bars and grieving in the cemetery. It's at one such cemetery visit that he find’s Madeline’s tomb empty, triggering his investigation.

Madeline Short Parker: Madge Bellamy plays our heroine, though for most of the movie she’s in a passive trance. Before the wedding, she’s not fleshed out much, being somewhat creeped out by the Haitian locals and talk of Voodoo. She doesn't get to enjoy being Mrs. Parker long, since Beaumont’s obsession with her ends up literally objectifying her. 

Dr. Bruner: Joseph Cawthorn plays a Christian missionary who feels uneasy about Beaumont’s estate and urges the Parkers to leave right after the wedding. After Neil’s shocking discovery, Bruner’s local knowledge and connections help the duo track down Legendre’s hideaway. Interestingly, one of his oldest friends and connections is a Haitian witch doctor named Pierre.

“Murder” Legendre: Bela Lugosi outright steals the show with his creepy eyes, sinister goatee and gleeful villainy. Part devilish dealmaker, part super villain, his past is vaguely hinted at. While the movie makes it clear that its possible for these zombies to return to normal from their drugged state, Legendre still has supernatural powers: he has an affinity to birds of prey and he can silently and mentally command his zombies. He learned voodoo from a local expert, then converted him into his first zombie. Legendre then went on a zombie-making spree, using them as cheap labor in his sugar mill and, to his unending delight, he made his former enemies into his zombie A team (i.e. the ones you see on screen a lot). He plays Beaumont for a fool: Legendre is the true master of zombie-Madeline, and once Beaumont starts turning against Legendre, the bokkor slips some poison into Beaumont’s drink and cheerfully sits down to watch his former partner slowly and painfully turn into a zombie. Lugosi’s fantastic in this.

Directed by Victor Halperin (and co-produced with his brother), this is clearly a low budget movie compared to the Universal stuff from 1931. There’s a rough-around-the-edges quality to it. Some of the edits are a little sloppy. Though there are some great touches. First is the makeup effects by Jack Pierce. His zombies are the slow, wide-eyed kind, but each one looks unique and has “personality.” You can tell that they had lives prior to their weird state of unlife, and their costumes reflect that. Some of the sets, particularly Legendre’s estate and his sugar mill, are incredibly atmospheric and eye-catching. The Mill stands out as the most visually striking scene, with the large gears all being operated by zombies, and when one accidentally falls in, the others keep pushing away without a pause. Effectively creepy in a movie where the acting is very theatrical. 

There’s also an interesting split-screen effect near the end where Neil and Madeline are shown: Neil is swooning from fever on the beach below Legendre’s castle and Madeline is standing in a trance inside one of the rooms therein. It doesn’t quite work right, since the effect is a little jerky, but it still conveys the mood quite nicely, showing both character at respective low points. I applaud the ambition of the effect.

Story and Dialogue by Garnett Weston and based on (uncredited) the novel “The Magic Island” by William Seabrook. The plot has roots in sensationalism: White people go to exotic location and are bedeviled by exotic local magic. Zombies were one of the new, hot supernatural things at the time. 

As for the character work, its mostly bland. Neil only gets interesting after he turns into a mournful drunk prone to bouts of swooning. Madeline is more of a plot device/object of desire than a complete person. Dr. Bruner is cut from the exact same cloth as Abraham Van Helsing. Beaumont’s arc is thoroughly predictable in its path from “obsession” to “I’ve made a huge mistake.” Even Legendre is two-dimensionally evil, but Lugosi manages to elevate the material above the unimpressive script.

Original music by (uncredited) Xavier Cugat according to IMDB. According to Wikipedia, most of the soundtrack is a hodgepodge of classical pieces recorded for the film including works by Mussorgsky, Liszt and Wagner. There is also a Voodoo-sounding chant that plays over the opening credits that establishes the exotic tone right away. 

White Zombie is actually rather good. Bela Lugosi is playing up his gleeful devilishness and cuts a sinister figure much less restrained and aristocratic than Dracula. Which is good, because he carries the film entirely by himself. The other actors are…there, and play their roles, but what sticks with you after this movie is Bela and the great zombie makeup by Jack Pierce and the overall spooky mood. Respect most definitely due. 

The film's also in the public domain, so it's extraordinarily easy to get a copy of it. Hell, four of the first five results for "White Zombie 1932" on Youtube are the full movie.

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