As I’ve mused in this space before, the zombie, as we know it today, is a fairly recent development; the shuffling, slack-jawed social metaphor we’ve grown so accustomed to dates only as far back as 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Yet to say George A. Romero invented the zombie is also a bit of a simplification. In point of fact, Romero never once used the Z-word in his original trilogy, letting it slip in only as an ad-libbed aside from Dennis Hopper in 2005’s Land of the Dead. So where did our cultural preoccupation really begin?
One could do worse than to suggest 1932’s White Zombie. The zombie, of course, originated in Haitian folklore, as a former corpse working under the influence of a witch doctor. This concept probably wasn’t entirely alien to the moviegoing public in 1932, but it was evidently novel enough to require a local native guide to explain it to the protagonists in the opening scene. The willfully perverse, gloriously pre-Code story concerns a young American couple who travel to Haiti to be married, only for the bride to catch the eye of unscrupulous plantation owner Charles Beaumont. Beaumont enlists the help of a local witch doctor (the always great Bela Lugosi), who bears the Movie Villain Triple Crown of widow’s peak, unibrow, and G.G. Allin goatee, on top of being actually named “Murder Legendre.” Soon, the woman falls under the voodoo spell, and becomes the titular White Zombie.
Despite exhibiting some of the creakiness common to the era, there’s a lot to recommend in this movie, and in particular Lugosi’s performance. This could very well be termed Peak Lugosi: he’s clearly more comfortable with the dialog here than in his star-making turn in Dracula, and he has yet to descend into the morphine-induced hamminess that would color his later work. Indeed, Lugosi seems to relish the role of Murder Legendre (which, again, let’s just bask in that character name), playing him as a schemer of Heisenbergian proportions. Of particular note is a scene in which Murder cheerfully introduces his personal zombie entourage, each a former nemesis or unhelpful local government official. The film is also genuinely atmospheric, and avoids some of the staginess that clutters many early talkies; consider the extended scene in which Murder’s zombies silently toil in the mill, scored only by the creaking of the wooden gears. That said, the film does suffer from a dull romantic core (though leavened somewhat by having the male lead black-out drunk for much of the running time), and it is sadly just as casually racist as you would expect from a 1932 film titled White Zombie (“In the hands of natives? Oh, no! Better DEAD than that!”).
Ironically, given the film’s current ubiquity on public domain video labels, there were several decades when White Zombie was considered to be lost, existing only as stills in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland until its rediscovery in the late 1960s. It serves as a fitting mascot, then, for the UCLA Festival of Preservation, which will be running a newly restored print at the MFA. It is also more than appropriate that this, the very first zombie film, just won’t stay dead.
dir. Victor Halperin
Part of the ongoing series: UCLA Festival of Preservation