Director: Victor Halperin
Screenwriter: Garnett Weston
By Roderick Heath
Victor Halperin’s White Zombie holds status as one of the true oddities of classic Hollywood Horror cinema. The Chicago-born Halperin and his brother Edward, who often served as his producer, were entrepreneurial Hollywood players: Victor broke into moviemaking penning the screenplay of 1922’s The Danger Point, debuted as a director on Greater Than Marriage (1924), and served as writer, producer, and director on the Agnes Ayres vehicle When A Girl Loves (1924). Like many other Hollywood talents the Halperins had difficulty negotiating the transition to sound, but when the enormous popularity of Béla Lugosi’s star-making vehicle Dracula (1931) unleashed a craze for Horror films, the brothers mounted what was then a relative rarity, an independently produced film, filmed on a budget of $50,000, making canny used of Universal Studios’ infrastructure and staff and managing to land Lugosi for one week’s work a few hundred dollars. Today Halperin is best remembered by far for White Zombie. The film’s profitability and popularity gained Halperin a fresh studio contract with Paramount, although his two horror follow-ups, Supernatural (1933) and Revolt of the Zombies (1936), were interesting but sketchy disappointments, and the director himself reportedly disliked working in the genre despite his affinity with it. Later Halperin worked at the Poverty Row studio PRC, managing the occasional oddity like the Jack London adaptation Torture Ship (1938), before retiring from directing at 47: he would live for another 41 years.
White Zombie also owes some of its stature to being the first zombie movie, albeit one with few links to the subgenre as we recognise it today. The infamously hard-living journalist and travel writer William Seabrook had grabbed international attention with his report on Haitian voodoo practises in his 1929 book The Magic Island, popularising the word “zombie.” A play by Kenneth Webb took the word as its title and gave inspiration to Halperin, but legal tussles obliged Halperin to amend his own title. The film’s early vignettes, including Haitians burying bodies in the middle of the road to prevent them being resurrected, are drawn directly from Seabrook’s book. One famous episode recounted in the book was the story of a young bride who realises she’s attending a wedding party where all the guests are dead: Halperin references this with his own benighted wedding but inverts the situation so it’s the bride who joins the undead ranks. But White Zombie is really more a classical fairy tale, with its central villain, the notorious dark sorcerer “Murder” Legendre (Lugosi) offered as a figure akin to Koschei the Dread from Slavic myth or Atlantes from Orlando Furioso, a figure of vast and evil power ensconced in a fortress, snatching away the decorous maiden and suborning all to his will.
Like Karl Freund’s The Mummy from the same year, White Zombie’s minatory charge stems from the way it hovers stylistically in a grey zone between silent and sound cinema, between generic Horror cinema and something more primal and poetic. The film’s opening credits unfold over the burial in the road, the ritual singing of the funeral party offering a stark and throbbing rhythm on sound. Upon this scene intrudes a horse-drawn coach carrying the young about-to-be-marrieds Madeleine Short and Neil Parker (Madge Bellamy and John Harron). Neil and Madeleine have come to Haiti to be married after accepting the hospitality and patronage of Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer), a local plantation owner they met on a cruise, with the promise of a job for Neil as Beaumont’s agent in New York. “A cheerful introduction for you to our West Indies,” Neil comments to Madeleine after rolling over the fresh grave. Halperin follows this immediate with the first and most notable example of his peculiar imagistic imagination, cutting to a shot of the carriage rolling along the lonely, shadowy country road with a pair of huge, glowing eyes appearing as a spectral presence tracking the vehicle’s passage, before revealing a tall figure standing by the road waiting for the carriage.
The huge eyes become smaller and zero in on the figure’s head, telling the viewer this figure is an uncanny, threatening, very interested presence with supernatural power. The driver (Clarence Muse) halts to ask the figure for directions, and we gain our first proper glimpse of Lugosi as Legendre, a Satanic figure with blazing, mesmeric eyes, widow’s peak sharp as a scalpel, flaring eyebrows and inward-crooking beard forks. Legendre approaches the carriage and clasps Madeleine’s trailing white silk scarf even as he holds her and Neil rapt with his powerful gaze. Against the night horizon, upon a slope above the road, a procession of slowly moving, disquieting figures, men the coach driver recognises instinctively: “Zombies!” The driver whips up the horses and charges away, leaving Legendre with the scarf in hand, much to his satisfaction. When the carriage finally arrives at the Beaumont house, a place of lush splendour and genteel pretence, Madeleine and Neil listen to the driver’s credulous explanation that the people they saw were the living dead, and the driver points to the line of figures moving down a slope silhouetted against the sky in fear, declaring these to be the zombies.
A mysterious man approaching through the shadowy garden of the Beaumont estate proves to be Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), a missionary and theologian who’s been invited by Beaumont to officiate at the couple’s wedding and a hearty, reassuring figure. He dispels the eerie atmosphere, but only to a degree, as even he admits that Haiti is a place filled with such mysteries that would “turn your hair grey.” Bruner becomes uncomfortable as he listens to Neil and Madeleine’s explanation of why they’re here and what Beaumont has promised them, noting that Beaumont never struck him as such an altruistic romantic. Halperin illustrates how right Bruner is, as Beaumont (Robert Frazer) is seen instructing his manservant Silver (Brandon Hurst), asking if he’s heard anything from “that gentleman” and quickly enough revealing that his actual motivation for inviting the young couple is because he’s in love with Madeleine and wants to find some way to cleave them apart. Even as he greets the couple warmly and declares himself ready to help them along, Beaumont is planning to head out and visit Legendre, a dark sorcerer and voodoo master, who promises he can render Madeleine Beaumont’s passive and obedient slave.
Beaumont’s visit to the sugar mill Legendre owns is one of the more delicately strange and important sequences in Horror cinema. Legendre’s zombie slaves toil in shuffling, dead-eyed ranks to feed cane into a huge grinding machine, itself driven by zombies turning the gears, machinery still working obliviously as one of the zombies trips and falls into the feed chute to be chewed up along with the cane. Halperin betrays unique awareness of how sound cinema could operate in the genre here, allowing the unnerving creak and grind of the machinery and the unnatural silence of the zombies to forge the uncanny atmosphere as well as draw out the fascinating thematic undercurrents of what we’re seeing. Later, he uses the ambient croaks of frogs and insects, and the bloodcurdling shriek of a vulture to equally odd and unnerving effect. Seeds for the ominous sound design of David Lynch in this, conjuring oneiric and psychological dimensions beyond what visuals can gain on their own. Indeed, White Zombie, described by Phil Hardy as “one of the underground classics of horror,” feels like a root leading as much to Lynch, Kenneth Anger, and other icons of underground and experimental cinema and surrealist music videos, as it does to George Romero’s Dead movies and his manifold imitators.
White Zombie certainly birthed a subgenre followed by zombie movies with highly varying levels of ethnographic validity and dramatic tension, like Roy William Neill’s Black Moon (1934), Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Edward L. Cahn’s Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), and on to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979) and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987). But the film’s more vital influence feels more rarefied, writing cheques more exalted filmmakers like Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman, and Lynch would cash. Something about White Zombie seems to sit outside the normal boundaries of the liminal. Some of this air of the alien is due to the archaic, shoestring production, like the wheezing, tinny classical music on the soundtrack: the glaze of oldness as an aesthetic unto itself has a taunting appeal, the awareness of the limitations of past technology operating in its own way as a force of black magic itself, sustaining the ghostly presence of people long dead. But it also connects to the otherworldly charge of Halperin’s carefully composed visuals, which by contrast to the primitive sound still retain vibrant lustre. The early shot of the huge, spectral eyes that shrink and find their place in Legendre’s head is a marvellous jolt of visual invention, whilst the column of gnarled and mindless zombies tracking Legendre around the dark Universal backlot standing in for Haiti are a memorable, eerie sight, bolstering the idea of the land beyond the wrought iron boundaries of the plantation as ruled over by primal and unnatural forces which know no easy quieting, where the dead walk and the irrational still rules.
Legendre’s sugar mill offers a wealth of hallucinatory space around the dark grinding machines and hobbling black bodies. The stout but carefully crafted gates that separate Legendre’s managerial space evoke the pretences of Old World civility erected as a barrier to separate from the ruler from the ruled, whilst also allowing Halperin to work through his recurring fascination with images captured spying through barriers and loopholes. Beaumont’s visit to Legendre sees the self-deluding and desperate planter begging Legendre to facilitate his desire to make Madeleine fall in love with him – “If she were to disappear for a month!” – but Legendre tells him with detached thoughtfulness that she is too deeply in love with Neil and implies his only option for obtaining her is to make her into a zombie. Legendre hands him a vial of the powder he uses for the zombie-making ritual and tells him a pinprick will suffice on some object, but Beaumont initially announces his refusal to take this option. Legendre hovers outside Beaumont’s house whilst the wedding proceeds within, Beaumont making desperate entreaty to Madeleine to her love-struck disinterest.
This finally provokes Beaumont to a desperate, fateful gesture that directly engages a folkloric feel as he hands Madeleine a rose impregnated with the zombifying powder. This causes her to pitch over and collapse, apparently dead, at the wedding banquet. The visuals in this sequence are particularly memorable in the sharp alternations of romantic and sepulchral imagery. The impending wedding amidst the splendour of Beaumont’s mansion with its gilt fixtures and candelabra and flowers has some of the teeming lushness of Josef von Sternberg. Legendre without exists in a hoary netherworld as he presents the equally folkloric figure of death intruding upon a wedding, standing before an ornate gateway as the master of life and death, the dark antithesis to the settled, ordered pretence and ritual sustained within the house. Legendre, watched over the harshly shrieking vulture that seems to be his familiar, clutches Madeleine’s white scarf as he takes a candle from a carriage lamp and carves it into a voodoo doll so he can work his influence over the hapless bride.
Another seminal 1932 Horror film White Zombie bears a striking similarity to is Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, a resemblance particularly keen when comparing Dreyer’s tour of a mysterious abode where the shadows of dancers play on walls with Halperin’s take on the same idea, finding a way of acknowledging the world beyond the primal drama consuming the protagonist without dispelling the mood of oneiric isolation. Neil is glimpsed in a tavern drinking away his sorrow after Madeleine’s burial, the revelry around him casting shadows on the wall, amidst which he sees Madeleine’s spectral, pleading visage. Neil, close to madness with grief and drink, stumbles up the path to the cemetery to visit Madeleine’s mausoleum, only for Halperin to fade out as his scream echoes from within in finding Madeleine’s body gone. The fairy tale qualities of the film, focusing on objects like the cursed rose given at the wedding and the climactic images of the possessed princess in the dark tower under the sorcerer’s spell, connect with a nascent surrealist sensibility. Neil’s desperate liebestod comes touched with a morbidly hysterical, almost necrophiliac edge as he goes to join Madeleine in the grave, intercut with the sight of Legendre and Beaumont supervising as the zombies remove Maadeleine’s coffin from its place and open, revealing her doll-like form, nominally dead now the perfect, passive feminine love object. Years later Buñuel would approximate aspects of Halperin’s vision in Abismos de Pasion (1953), whilst Halperin’s insidious feel for animal life infesting his conjured world is also Buñuel-like.
Halperin and his screenwriter Garnett Weston deliberately tried to lessen the reliance on dialogue, to make the production easier and expecting beforehand that on a stringent budget they weren’t likely to land particularly good actors. It’s commonly noted that the two romantic leads, Bellamy and Harron, are insipid, and Frazer, with his shock of dark hair and sensual lips, has a Byronic quality that’s good for his part even as he often walks the edges of the overripe. All the more space for Lugosi to dominate. Lugosi’s star wattage was at its zenith when he made White Zombie, which makes it all the more interesting that he was willing to appear in a low-budget independent film, particularly after he had so recently turned down the role of the monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), in doing so handing over an opportunity to the man about to be his great, even eclipsing rival as a horror star, Boris Karloff. The attraction of the role is obvious, however, offering Lugosi, Dracula notwithstanding, his greatest genre role. Legendre is a perfectly iconic villain with his unmistakeable appearance and costume, a figure of dread and sepulchral stature supllying an intelligent brand of evil, relishing the power he wields with an edge of vengeful purpose.
Weston’s dialogue registers on a more subtly sinister key than Lugosi’s better-known Dracula lines, allowing Lugosi to turn his much-mimicked but still unique intonations to drawing out an undercurrent of sardonic and self-satisfied menace, most pointedly in his comment to Beaumont as the planter slips ever deeply under his power after once snubbing him, gripping the sorcerer’s hand in a bleakly useless appeal to his humanity: “You refused to shake hands with me once, I remember…Well, well. We understand each-other better – now.” Legendre watches Beaumont succumbing with a quiet, almost indulgent sense of entertainment whilst he whittles another candle down to a voodoo doll of the planter. White Zombie exploits the image that had been built around Lugosi even well before he started playing Dracula on stage, as a man imbued with preternatural stature and mesmeric eyes often highlighted with pencil spotlights. In Dracula this was part of his role as the ultimate dark seducer-destroyer, a bringer of sexual evil, whereas Legendre is in that regard a more ambiguous creature.
It’s signalled that Legendre is driven on by resentment and a cruel sense of poetic justice, as he points out the members of his favoured zombie cabal, consisting of people who tried to control or sit in judgment on him, including his former mentor in sorcery, a minister of the government, and the state executioner “who might have executed me!” Beaumont immediately and unthinkingly gets on Legendre’s wrong side when he neglects to accept the sorcerer’s proffered hand at their first meeting. Legendre’s delight in controlling people has the inevitable dimension of claiming the virginal young beauty as he zombifies Madeleine but also gains a homoerotic edge as he does the same to Beaumont, taunting him in his bleakly transforming state with the dread knowledge, “You are the first man to know what is happening,” and regretting that Beaumont can no longer speak to describe the experience. The sight of Beaumont, twisting up, slowly losing control of his limbs and faculties as a malignant force takes him over, speaks eloquently nonetheless of a state that actually seems to live up to the old cliché of a fate worse than death.
Where the vampire becomes in death a wielder of mysterious power and therefore has long served as a metaphor for potency ranging from the political to the erotic, the zombie is the opposite, driven on purely by either the will of a master or the remnant of a life instinct. Zombie movies have long since become detached from the zombie figure’s roots in the black magic esoterica attached to voodoo religious tradition. That’s largely for understandable reasons: dealing with voodoo obliges storytellers to anchor their stories in a specific cultural and historical dimension, often with an edge of racist assumption even despite the best intentions of the filmmakers. But the figure of the mindlessly shuffling walking dead nonetheless retains a potency that can be applied to a variety of paradigms. Despite its pointed metaphors and mindful aspects White Zombie doesn’t entirely avoid such discomfort, sporting one actor in blackface playing ancient witch doctor Pierre (Dan Crimmins), who Bruner visits to learn more about Legendre, whilst Muse’s performances manages to imbue his part with an edge of baleful awareness and solicitous purpose even as it also treads the edges of bug-eyed, timorous stereotype.
The very title of White Zombie invokes games of racial coding – a white zombie is something else again from a black zombie, apparently. But Halperin’s film also predicts the later detachment of concept from root in the scene at Legendre’s mill, the zombie immediately and plainly rendered a vessel of potent metaphorical malleability. Legendre is also a classical figure of devolved European culture, with his great gothic castle grafted onto a new world shore like some cancerous offshoot. The vision of Legendre’s sugar mill zeroes in on the ghostly echo of slavery sustained in zombie folklore with Legendre as a Baron Samedi figure, whilst also linking it to a more general, mordant portrayal of exploitative labour that must have echoed with excruciating clarity for a Depression-era audience: “They work faithfully,” Legendre tells Beaumont as he encourages the planter to take them up for his own workforce, “They are not worried about long hours.” The perfect state of capitalist endeavour.
It’s also tempting to view Legendre as an analogue for the rising tide of totalitarianism in Europe, a prototypical fascist dictator suborning people to his will, as well as embodying the dark side of western colonialism and exploitation. The zombie cadre that follows Legendre consists of defeated and enslaved enemies from the ranks of the local law and politics, as well as rivals and his former mentor in magic “whose secrets I tortured out of him,” rivals in power suborned in a fashion comparable to fascist takeover of the mechanisms of civic democracy, although at the same time he also exhibits a mischievously subversive attitude towards state power. In this regard he also rather strongly resembles the type of gangster-outlaw hero so popular in films around the same time, subverting the machinery of justice and morality to service his own will. His enthralled servants wear the symbols of defeated creeds – one has an iron cross slung around his neck, whilst his former mentor still wears a robe inscribed with cabalistic signs. Halperin would reiterate this shade of political commentary, however clumsily, in Revolt of the Zombies, where the story revolves around trying to bury the potential zombie threat stemming out of a misbegotten attempt to use them as soldiers during World War I.
The theme of domination also resonates on a more interpersonal level. White Zombie offers a dark lampoon the concept of the trophy wife, the beauty suborned to plutocratic ego as both Legendre and Beaumont in their way attempt to impose their will on Madeleine. Beaumont’s desperate passion shades into a sense of entitled prerogative that drives him, despite his scruples, to impose on his beloved a most terrible fate, only to then cringe in remorse as he beholds her, a dead-eyed, blank-minded automaton playing piano in Legendre’s castle, a prettified object. Beaumont is remorseful as he perceives the ultimate logic of his choices, only to quickly pay the price. For Legendre, such perfect annihilation of personality and agency seems on the other hand the most relished edge of his power, steadily consuming every being that comes into range, happy to force the mindless Madeleine to slay Neil when he comes to rescue her, and having his zombie cadre carry the screaming Silver out to the castle battlements and drop him into the whirlpool churning below.
After finding Madeleine’s body missing, Neil visits Bruner, who speaks sceptically about the supernatural even as he readies for a contest of magic, showing Neil statutes in Haitian law against poisoning in a form that reproduces the appearance of zombiehood. Bruner has no pretences to being a sorcerer but explains in his position as a preacher he’s picked up lore from all sorts of sources. Bruner and Neil set out across country and approach the territory where Legendre dominates, a veritable fiefdom of death where he rules unchallenged, and camp on the wave-tossed beach beneath Legendre’s citadel, Neil stricken with fever. Legendre’s keep, based around a central set redressed from Dracula, is a marvellously incongruous outpost of gothic architecture and outsized aristocratic pretence, a space entrapping Legendre’s dark fantasies and egotisms as well as his human pets, with an interior replete with odd and inchoate dimensions, including a flooded dungeon and a whirlpool below for easy disposal of unwanted guests. Halperin returns to liebestod imagery as he splits his frame between the mindless Madeleine hovering on a high balcony in the keep whilst Neil, visionary in his feverish state, senses her presence and the bond of their love achieves its own, delirious spiritual force, and the young husband begins a stumbling journey towards the castle.
White Zombie occasionally signals the relative freedom of the pre-code independent filmmakers as Halperin offers glimpses of Madeleine before her nuptials in her underwear, and gore, as when Neil shoots a zombie only behold the bloodless hole it leaves in its chest, tame of course by later standards but provocative enough for the time, particularly the latter touch, at a time when Lugosi’s Dracula wasn’t even shown biting anyone or being staked. Moreover such touches simply feed rather than disrupt the weird atmosphere, marking out the corporeal stakes of the magical drama. Halperin’s unusual, oblique, reality-destabilising grammar approach is maintained even as the film nears its ending. Legendre mesmerically directs Madeleine to stab the collapsed Neil after he manages to penetrate the house, stirring the white-clad captive from her bed and drawing her through the cavernous twists of the castle for the deed, filming her through a loophole in a balustrade in a frame charged with a sense of onerous constriction. As she moves to stab Neil, a hand reaches into the frame and grips her wrist, staying the killing blow, the unseen figure’s black cape also visible.
This helps identify that it’s actually Bruner who stops her blow, having followed Neil into the house and dressed in the cape in literally assuming the mantle of opposing white magician, but Halperin transforms the gesture into something rather more abstract, almost like the hand of fate, or the author, intervening to break the chains of Legendre’s control. As the zombies shuffle in to aid their master in the final battle, Halperin shows their ragged, stalky shadows cast on a wall, incarnations of the darkness scuttling out of its burrow to meet the white of Madeleine’s nightgown and Neil’s suit. As Madeleine takes up Legendre’s dagger the sorcerer’s command from the table where he was talking at Beaumont, the latter attempts in his last throes of transformation to prevent her, with no success. The climax comes as sudden, hysterical blur of action as Neil finds himself surrounded by the zombies, Bruner offering an amusingly curt answer to Legendre’s vast necromantic power by sneaking up behind him and knocking him out with a blow to the head, before ordering the zombies to leap over the battlements into the surging surf.
The recovering Legendre smashes a vial of his zombifying powder on the masonry when Bruner and Neil try to charge him, and holds them at bay with his will, only for Beaumont, advancing with the last of his human strength and purpose, to ambush and grab the sorcerer, and drive them both over the precipice to their deaths, whereupon Madeleine returns to life. The film’s simple yet rich narrative closes a tragic circle as Beaumont undoes the evil he set in motion and even provides a proof that his passion was as authentic for Madeleine as Neil’s, as he uses his last breath to save her and the man she loves as well as avenging himself. Halperin signs off with a leave-‘em-laughing touch of Bruner interrupting the couple’s reuniting kiss to ask for a light for his pipe, but it actually comes as a welcome release from the atmosphere Halperin has sustained despite all limitations for the previous seventy minutes, that suffocating netherworld where the dead walk and romance has poisoned thorns under the pretty petals.