DECEMBER 14 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)
Bela Lugosi followed up his classic 1931 portrayal of Count Dracula with the first feature length zombie movie in 1932. This film was actually inspired by Kenneth Webb’s Broadway play, “Zombie“, and was filmed in a span of eleven days.
Madeleine and Neil have been invited to be married at Charles Beaumont’s plantation in Haiti, despite only having just recently met him. Neil soon discovers that things aren’t what they seem when Madeleine dies shortly after the wedding… only to be raised again as a zombie…
Many of the cast members were silent film stars whose fame started to die out with the advent of talking films. Joseph Cawthorn, who played Dr. Brunner was mostly known at the time for his comic relief roles prior to “White Zombie“. Madge Bellamy, the lovely actress that portrays Madeleine used to recall that working with Bela Lugosi was pleasant, and that he would often kiss her hand in the mornings on set, while others- such as the Assistant Cameraman Enzo Martinelli claimed that he “wasn’t really a friendly type”.
While most of the sets were re-used from previous movies, they were wonderfully redressed, and looked great in this film. Some of the sets you’ll see from other famous films included:
The great hall seen in “Dracula” (1931);
The pillars and the hanging balcony from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923);
The dark, gloomy corridors from “Frankenstein” (1931); and
The chairs from “The Cat and the Canary” (1927)
I absolutely loved the look of the film. They used shadows to good effect in many scenes, and even had some creative camera shots as well. One shot in particular, I thought was beautiful. It’s the shot of Madeleine coming down the stairs of the great hall, while the camera is pointing through one of the clover leafed holes in the banister. Kudos especially to Bela Lugosi’s costume early on in the film, before he switches over the a more traditional tuxedo.
And his make-up! Jack Pierce, who did Lugosi’s make-up is also famous for his work on “Frankenstein“, “The Wolf Man” (1941), and “The Mummy” (1931) as well. His thin mustache, and the double tufted beard looked sinister and marvelous on Lugosi. The only problem I had was the eyebrows… they were a little distracting.
One complaint cast against this film over the years is the quality of the acting. I won’t lie, it’s not the greatest acting in the world, but fans will be pleased with Lugosi’s acting. One needs to remember that most of the stars were used to silent films, and based their style on that. This is really evident in Madge Bellamy’s performance, as well as John Harron’s (he plays Neil). Robert Frazer (as Charles Beaumont), and Joseph Cawthorn are a bit more natural in their acting. The show of course, though is stolen by Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of “Murder” Legendre- the voodoo master.
I’m not too sure what to say about the portrayal of the voodoo created zombies, since they aren’t what we would expect them to be. I was a little disappointed by the rather stiff movements of the poor zombies. They looked like they were almost trying to march. Personally, I would’ve liked to have seen them shambling along- not so much like the George Romero zombies from “Night of the Living Dead“, but more like sleepwalkers in a trance.
The storyline is pretty basic, and told in a simple fashion, but is still interesting enough to give Bela Lugosi material to hand in a great performance. Honestly, the only real flaw is the acting- which is understandable when you consider that films were still in a bit of a transition from silent to talking films.
“White Zombie” is definately a film for those that are interested in seeing the evolution of the zombie film from voodoo zombies to the dead rising to nom on the living zombies. If you’re a Bela Lugosi fan, you’ll truly enjoy his acting in this film as well.
DECEMBER 14 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)
from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 18-20
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005
According to certain critics, it is impossible to produce films made within capitalist institutions which criticize imperialist practices. T.W. Adorno believes that the culture industry always inculcates ideas of order so as to maintain the status quo.(1) Judith Hess develops this idea. Genre movies are popular, she says, because they temporarily relieve fears aroused by recognizing social and political conflicts. Although they address those conflicts, the various genres attempt to resolve conflicts in simple and reactionary ways. Hess notes three genre characteristics:
"First, these films (e.g., Westerns, Horror and Sci-Fi) never deal directly with present social and political problems; second, all of them are set in the non-present. Westerns and horror films take place in the past — science fiction films, by definition, take place in a future time … Third, the society in which the action takes place is very simple and does not function as a dramatic force in the film — it exists as a backdrop against which the few actors work out the central problem the film presents."(2)
Horror films, according to Hess, attempt to resolve disparities between two contradictory ways of problem solving; rationality vs. faith, an irrational commitment to certain traditional beliefs. (3) I find Hess' approach too dogmatic. Many examples from past and later genre movies refute it. Fifties sci-fi movies such as THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THIS ISLAND EARTH, THEM, and TARANTULA were clearly located within their contemporary era. Consciously or unconsciously, they attempted to address themselves to the ideological currents of their time. Re-screenings of the sixties TV series THE OUTER LIMITS reveal contemporary issues of sexism and cold war paranoia now explicit from a later perspective. The seventies saw an U.S. Renaissance of "horror" movies, many of which offered subversive attacks on the family and capitalist institutions.(4) Yet what we see as explicit in that seventies genre was already implicit in earlier works of the thirties and forties. (5) Genre movies can be riddled with irresolvable tensions and ambiguities, which can split the facade under which the films are produced.
Contradictory elements can enter a narrative to subvert the dominant concepts the film attempts to project. Certain mechanisms are common to the horror genre as well as other films. In his article, "The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film: Warner's MARKED WOMAN," Charles W. Eckert refers to the Freudian ideas of condensation and displacement to explain the existence in a film of tensions which can not be consciously resolved. Attempts are made at fantasy resolutions. But they are not always successful. Condensation fuses a number of discrete elements or ideas into a single symbol. Displacement attempts to resolve the dilemma at another level. Thus the way genre films deal with social tensions can be "both the result of conscious censorship and a myth-like transposition of the conflict into new terms."(6)
THE WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)
WHITE ZOMBIE was made in 1932, a year which saw not only the worst of the Depression but the greatest production of thirties horror films. The film was directed by Victor Halperin, produced by an independent studio and released by United Artists. Bela Lugosi appeared once more as the symbol of a decadent Europe. Onto that figure U.S. isolationist fears were projected and often realized (most notably in DRACULA). According to Carlos Clarens in his book on horror films, contemporary reviewers found WHITE ZOMBIE "childish, old-fashioned and melodramatic."(7) It was soon forgotten.
An enigma, the film seems to be the only distinctive movie Victor Halperin directed, with a screenplay by Garnett Weston from his original story, inspired by the 1929 publication, The Magic Island by William B. Seabrook, an investigation of contemporary voodoo practices in Haiti. Clarens believes that it was not the topicality of Seabrook's chronicles but the fantasy elements that gave its concept resonance. Clarens concludes,
"Whatever period feeling WHITE ZOMBIE possessed at the time of its release has been erased by the intervening third of a century, making the images more faded, the period more remote, and the picture itself more completely mysterious."(8)
However, WHITE ZOMBIE has a contemporary relevance. It addresses itself to a concrete case of U.S. imperialism and is implicitly grounded in a disguised critique based on the devices of condensation and displacement, as described by Charles Eckert. The film's only enigma is whether its critique is conscious or unconscious.
Superficially, the plot reveals nothing remarkable. New Yorker Madeline arrives in Haiti to marry her fiancé Neil, a bank employee in Port-au-Prince. On board she met wealthy plantation owner, Charles Beaumont, who now insists the ceremony be held on his estate. At the film's opening, Madeline and Neil witness a voodoo burial service at a crossroads, which location will prevent the body from being dug out and used for zombie purposes. Further along they encounter Legendre with his zombie entourage.
After the couple's arrival at Beaumont's mansion, Beaumont goes to meet Legendre at the latter's mill, worked by zombie slaves. Hopelessly in love with Madeline, Beaumont enlists Legendre's aid. During the wedding banquet, Legendre turns Madeline into a living zombie. Later Legendre, Beaumont and the zombie bodyguard steal her body from Beaumont's mausoleum to become Beaumont's mindless slave in Legendre's Castle of the Living Dead. Legendre then begins the same process with Beaumont.
Discovering Madeline's empty tomb, Neil enlists the aid of Dr. Bruner, a missionary, to go to Legendre's Castle, where they finally win the contest of wills. Legendre's zombie bodyguard perishes while the semi-alive Beaumont kills Legendre, falling to a joint death upon the rocks beneath the Castle walls. Freed from the contaminating forces of the Old World, Madeline revives. The U.S. couple are reunited, free to return to the "innocent" United States they left.
WHITE ZOMBIE seems to operate on a fantasy level. Its opening scenes articulate the film's manifest level: generic conflict between white U.S. rationality and native superstition. The first image is a long shot of a Negro funeral party. Small titles "White" appear on the frame's top half. Then, below, single drumbeats accompany the appearance of each individual letter of the larger title "Zombie." A Negro funeral chant begins. Neil and Madeline appear inside a coach. Dissolve from a long shot of the coach to a close up of Legendre's threatening eyes. Encountering Legendre at the roadside, the Negro coachman attempts to ask directions before he departs in terror at the sight of Legendre's zombie bodyguard. Legendre's black hat and cloak and his eyes have unmistakable satanic associations. Thrust into a strange environment of superstitious burial party, stereotyped frightened Negro coachman, Satanic villain and zombies, Madeline feels sexually threatened by Legendre, who has taken her scarf (later to be used for her transformation).
Much of this is similar to Universal horror themes of the thirties. But now the foreign environment is not Frankenstein's castle but Haiti. In 1932 it was no fantastic past environment but a Caribbean island under U.S. occupation.
HAITIAN HISTORY AND WHITE ZOMBIE
Haiti was under U.S. occupation from 1915-34. Although freed from French colonial domination in early nineteenth century by Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines, Haiti experienced many problems both internally and externally. Internally, color and class problems dividing the well-educated mulattos from impoverished blacks originated from that period of early occupation. Externally, Haiti tempted not only European powers seeking to infiltrate the Western Hemisphere but also newly emerging U.S. imperialist ambitions. Once U.S. won its own West, its accompanying historical, territorial policies began to extend into the Caribbean. Official U.S. isolationist foreign policies were seen as relevant to Europe only and did not apply to the Western Hemisphere. Despite Woodrow Wilson's claims to repudiate Theodore Roosevelt's interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine, Wilson's administration had more instances of intervention than the previous two. By 1915, U.S. diplomats saw Haiti as ripe for invasion.
Haiti was then in political turmoil, nothing new. The opposing faction had executed the incumbent President along with his most feared administrator, the chief executioner. German businessmen resident in Haiti did not form such numbers as to justify U.S. claims of large-scale espionage, and though a clause in Haiti's Constitution forbade foreigners to own land, some Germans had married Haitian citizens to bypass it. In 1915, the U.S. made a pretence for involvement to restore national order in the face of disturbing internal conditions.
On September 3rd, 1915, the invading U.S. Marines proclaimed martial law. In 1916, a formal treaty legalized the occupation. In it Wilson set up an all-powerful financial committee, a constabulary organized and overseen by U,S. officers, settlement of foreign claims, and overall authority delegated to a U.S. military officer rather than a Haitian civil official. In his 1971 book, The American Occupation of Haiti, Hans Schmidt notes that the model was Britain's occupation of Egypt. Racial condescension towards Haitian citizens soon began. Worse was to follow.
Desiring economic power the U.S. occupiers removed the foreign landowning clause from the Constitution. Up to that time, every one of Haiti's sixteen Constitutions had possessed this clause, the natural aftermath of Haiti's original colonial experience. In 1917, the Haiti National Assembly refused to concur and attempted a new anti-U.S. Constitution, which led to the U.S. Marines' dissolving the Assembly, on the orders of the puppet President. The ownership clause was then dropped from the 1918 Constitution. Original peasant freeholders became peons, and foreign dominated plantations replaced an independent land tenure system. Slavery also followed when the North Americans introduced a forced labor system for their 1918 road-building program. Internal racial conflicts between mulattos and blacks worsened under U.S. occupation, particularly with U.S. officers from the Deep South preferring the former. Periodic guerrilla uprisings occurred, but not until the 1929 Cayes massacre and resulting public disorders were repressive powers gradually abandoned. In 1934, the U.S. occupation officially ended.
WHITE ZOMBIE has no reference to any of this historical background. Its generic associations as a fantasy could easily locate the film's action in Bahnhof Frankenstein or the South Sea Islands. Yet, the very location used undermines the stereotyped functions the characters are supposed to play out on the film's manifest level.
In genre terms, Neil is the hero. Yet in a film set in 1932 Haiti, his position as clerk in the Port-au-Prince Bank makes him part of the influx of U.S. personnel, which had disastrous effects on Haiti's economic and social life. The white-collar administrators, of whom Neil is a part, dominated financial institutions, and thus they felt racially superior to the subordinated Haitians, both the cultured mulatto elite and Negroes. Although some social fraternization of Americans and Haitians began in the early period of occupation, before servicemen's families arrived in 1916, Jim Crow racial segregation soon began. The character Neil's underlying racial attitudes appear in his reaction to Dr. Bruner's suggestion that the kidnapped Madeline may be in native hands: "Surely, you don't mean she's alive? In the hands of natives? God, no! She's better dead than that!" Despite their manifest roles as innocent hero and heroine, Neil and Madeline implicitly partake of the U.S. corruption of Haitian life.
Plantation owner Beaumont seems the genre villain, representing individual aberration in an otherwise harmonious social structure. He wants Madeline, even as a mindless zombie. The film's iconic operations stress Beaumont's decadence. Although North American, he dresses in English hunting clothes, owns an English baronial mansion, and notoriously exercises "lord of the manor rights" over visiting females. Beaumont has an equally snobbish English butler, Silver, whom he employs to do his dirty work.
Dr. Bruner is suspicious of Beaumont's offer of his mansion for the couple's wedding: "Mr. Beaumont never struck me like a fairy godfather to people like you unless …" He pauses to look at Madeline. Beaumont makes a final attempt to win Madeline before the ceremony, then uses Legendre's methods to achieve his sexual property rights by making Madeline his pliant zombie mistress. His desires relate to classic nineteenth century decadent romanticism, particularly the necrophiliac strains illustrated in Poe's Annabel Lee.
Beaumont's British pretensions set him apart from the "normal" North Americans, Neil, Madeline and Bruner. These pretensions, as seen in film stereotypes, correspond to hatred of England during the inter-war years (and even after, as George Orwell's forties journalism reveals). Cynics ascribed U.S. involvement in World War I as resulting from British deceit. Father Coughlin's Christian Front believed that a British Jewish conspiracy began the war. U.S. participation was supposedly secretly designed as a strategy to save the British Empire. Similar critical beliefs were behind attacks on the League of Nations. Some progressives hated Britain as a symbol of monarchy, privileged classes, and seat of Lombard Street international financiers. In the film ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1933), Charles Laughton's Dr. Moreau personifies English tea-drinking imperialism's dominating an island populated by mutant beastmen. It's an obvious satire on Anglo-colonialism.
Yet, despite these signs of decadence, the character Beaumont is still North American; the film cannot escape this. Though WHITE ZOMBIE attempts to disguise it, Beaumont is as much a "wholesome American" as Neil and Madeline. He has not inherited his mansion but ruthlessly acquired it as a result of the U.S. abolition of the alien landownership prohibition in the Haitian Constitution.
Nor are his British pretensions accidental. Young imperialist United States had hundreds of years of the British experience from which to learn. Contemporary U.S. occupation reports explicitly recognized this. Hans Schmidt points out that these reports even drew parallels with British rule in India. Beaumont inhabits a baronial castle run by hundreds of domestic servants. He represents a microcosm of the contemporary authoritarian regime exercising power over a native population deemed incapable of governing itself.
Despite the butler Silver's warnings, Beaumont decides to request Legendre's aid and visits Legendre's mill. Beaumont finds there a macabre echo of the system which has given him power. The mill offers a dark mirror image of U.S. colonial occupation. Negro zombies work the mill grinder. Supervising them are two of Legendre's bodyguards. The ex-Gendarme Captain inhabits the top floor, the brigand chief below. When Legendre and Beaumont meet, Legendre sits behind a desk with the former chief executioner at his side. This most prominent zombie first attacks Silver and Neil later in the film — as indispensable as the chief executioner to the 1915 executed President. Also in an obvious parallel to Haitian society, we see that the Negroes do the menial work while the mulattos supervise.
Class conflict riddled Haiti's social structure before, during, and after the U.S. occupation. U.S. educational and economic development programs originally attempted to favor the Negro peasants and undermine the mulatto elite's privileged position. Client President Borno strongly subscribed to this initial policy of breaking down class barriers and eliminating the pernicious elite exploitation of the impoverished masses. But the occupation actually enhanced the elite's power, as Schmidt points out. U.S. administrators preferred the well-educated mulatto collaborators who were versed in European culture, a heritage of earlier French occupation, as opposed to the unpolished former black strongmen rulers. Although black nationalism began after the 1929 uprisings, it was not until the 1946 black revolution that mulatto domination eventually ended.
Legendre offers Beaumont a supply of Negro workers: "They are not worried about long hours. You could make good use of men like mine on your plantation." Black zombie slavery in the film thus represents a macabre version of the forced labor system which the U.S. inflicted on the Haitian population in 1918. This system dated back to medieval feudalism and was last used in 1880 by the British to dredge Egyptian canals.
The independently minded Haitians found it offensive. It reminded them of the slavery overthrown by Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines. Many citizens were forced to work outside their own districts and often labored together in chains. Gendarme guards exercised close, often brutal supervision, with native gendarmes the worst offenders. Although the forced labor system was abolished in 1918, it caused native guerrilla uprisings.
The U.S. Marines put these down with unparalleled ferocity for the period, and the U.S. atrocities in many instances resembled those in Vietnam. Legendre's mill thus not only echoes the earlier forced labor system that the U.S. imposed on the native population but the contemporary miserable servitude of Negro Haitians.
Legendre's zombie bodyguard mirrors U.S. domination of both the privileged and revolutionary forces in Haiti: rich man, Minister of the Interior, chief executioner, Captain of Gendarmes, magician and brigand chief. Although played by white actors, the first three resemble mulattos while the last two Negroes concisely echo the racial divisions of Haitian class society. Although all were once his "enemies," Legendre now controls them all, just as the U.S. did Haiti in 1932.
The character of one once-affluent zombie who conducts Beaumont to the mill bears significant connotations. Legendre hates him more than the others, calling him a "swine — swollen with riches … He fought against my will to the last. Even yet I have trouble in fighting him." By accompanying Beaumont that zombie prefigures his fate. This figure obviously represents the rich French-cultured mulatto element within Haitian society, hated by the majority of the black population. Legendre's speech uncannily echoes two levels of feeling against the figure. On the one hand there is class hatred. On the other hand, there is the U.S. distrust of that element of the population more affluent and better educated than themselves. Such a collaborator can never escape suspicion.
The second figure of Legendre's bodyguard, the Minister of the Interior, obviously also comes from the mulatto elite and represents the client President and better-educated officials with whom the U.S. preferred to deal rather than the former black leaders. And, as mentioned earlier, the chief executioner always stands at Legendre's side. In real life, the native population held this figure in awe not only because of his status but also because he consulted the President on how to control the masses. By 1915 he had such a powerful position that U.S. reports on the Haitian riots mentioned his death in the same lines reporting the execution of the incumbent President. In that environment he was certainly no minor official. The fourth member of Legendre's bodyguard, the Captain of Gendarmes, seems the only recognizable white man among the group, recognition of the racial group of this police sector. Once in occupation, the U.S. could not trust any sector of the Haitian population to establish and maintain military control. Thus, most Gendarme officers were former Marines given special powers by the Haitian client-government.
Although the figures of magician and brigand chief at first seem out of place in the bodyguard, their positions do actually correspond to the contemporary situation of colonial control. Both represent Haitian forces who intermittently fought against U.S. domination during 1915-34. In the film, Legendre mentions that he'd been apprenticed to the magician but gained the upper hand and tortured him for the magical powers Legendre now possesses. Since religion provides a nationalist element to exploited groups, we can see the revolutionary associations of this figure. In Haiti, slaves used voodoo to maintain a common identity and provide a cloak for conspiratorial liaisons. Like all efficient dictators, Legendre realizes the importance of mobilizing the religious factor as a prop for his regime, and the magician's Negro appearance is by no means accidental.
The brigand chief, like the magician, represents another resistant sector brought under government control. He is undoubtedly a guerrilla leader representing Haiti's revolutionary groups. These were peasant soldiers who enlisted in short term military adventures, creating numerous revolutions before the U.S. occupation, after which the U.S. regarded them as a dangerous force requiring control. They played a major role in the anti-American forced labor riots of 1918-19. Like the Vietcong, they moved in a mountainous interior with great mobility. Ruthlessly put down in 1919, they still existed, made raids on the occupying power throughout the period of control. U.S. military reports designate them simply as "bandits," suppressing their real status, just as the film and the character Legendre do to this "brigand chief" zombie.
CONDENSATION AND DISPLACEMENT
IN THE CHARACTERIZATION
Bela Lugosi's role as Legendre is clearly significant. He condenses several symbolic traits relevant to the U.S. Establishment's projected guilt fears. If the contemporary United States then saw decadent Europe as exclusively responsible for its ills, so Legendre/Lugosi stands as the cause for Haiti's problems.
In the film Haiti's status as an occupied U.S. colony is never mentioned. WHITE ZOMBIE represses depicting the dominance of imperialist politics and economics, replacing it with images of voodoo and the supernatural. Legendre's threat towards the heroine seems exclusively sexual. But if the repressed returns in a distorted form containing elements of the forbidden, then Lugosi's representing Legendre functions similarly. Legendre's personality, as represented by the film, contains contradictory elements. These disturb the film's manifest content and subvert its whole attempt at fantasy resolution. This ambiguity is also found in the Neil, Madeline, and Dr. Bruner characters to different degrees. Legendre represents a distorted embodiment of U.S. guilt feelings concerning the occupation.
On one level, Legendre stands as the evil foreigner, the outsider. Beaumont disdainfully rebuffs him at their first meeting. A medium shot shows Legendre's hand entering right frame while Beaumont turns his face away to ignore it. A close up follows of the hand slowly clenching in anger, followed by a low angle shot of Legendre's satanic face. But as a mill owner, he works in the lower echelons of society. Despite being a necessary cog, he clearly hates the rich and their class system.
In a reversal in Legendre's Castle, Beaumont undergoes zombie transformation while Legendre carves his candlestick representation. Pathetically attempting to touch Legendre, Beaumont's hand enters right frame. Lengendre pauses, commenting, "You refused to shake hands with me once I remember." He pats Beaumont's hand like a father does a child (or as a condescending colonial to a native) saying, "Well, well, we understand each other better now." Brushing his hands as if ridding them from some imaginary pollution, Legendre returns to his carving.
Legendre's class hatred embodies Depression U.S.A.'s vengeance fantasies about businessmen — the decadent Europe-loving rich who escaped Black Thursday and opposed relief policies for the needy. This element benefited most from imperialist ventures.
WHITE ZOMBIE thus has important links with the socio-economic aspects of the horror genre exemplified in films such as THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, RACE WITH THE DEVIL, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and DAWN OF THE DEAD. In one recent example, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, the house acts as a condensation symbol for the repressed frustrations of the James Brolin character. He feels oppressed by the economic demands of his family commitments, but this never lead him to the logical conclusion that the capitalist ethos of monogamy plus mortgage is ruining his life. Similarly Bela Lugosi's Legendre becomes an imaginary condensation of the way that U.S. ideology understands the Third World's contemporary hatred of imperialism, an understanding which cannot be consciously expressed.
Similar condensations operate with the other characters. We have already noted that Neil could not in fact be pure hero by virtue of his involvement in the imperialist machinery and his complicity in the ideological attitudes behind the Haiti occupation. Neil and Beaumont demonstrate certain similarities despite their moral positions as hero and villain. A certain element of mirror imagery is present in WHITE ZOMBIE. Both men stand at opposite ends of the class and economic structure of society. Madeline fascinates both. Neil wins her by legal marriage; Beaumont uses the supernatural to possess her body. They want her as property, and both idealize her purity. Beaumont regards her as a "flower" and uses a poisoned rose in Madeline's bridal bouquet to turn her into a zombie. In the cantina scene after Madeline's burial, when Neil is going to pieces, Madeline's image appears, in her bridal gown, belying both her supposed decomposition and Neil's sordid environment. Madeline's image appears on a wall superimposed over a female shadow, and Neil attempts to grasp it; he is left with the shadow over his heart. Madeline's macabre fate is now related to Neil's over-idealized fantasies.
Neil and Beaumont possess Madeline as living marriage partner and living dead zombie. There are significant links between the attitudes of both. When Madeline suddenly dies, Neil speaks her name once and articulates her property status twice: "Madeline..my wife, my wife." Like Beaumont, he has necrophiliac impulses: "I kissed Madeline when she lay in the coffin and her lips were cold."
In genre terms, Madeline appears as the archetypal white female victim, the vulnerable feminine aspect of U.S. matriarchy always in danger from Indians, monsters, flying saucers, foreign invaders or internal subversives such as reds, black panthers and hippies. As bride-to-be, she reflects her country's capitalist possessive ethos, whether it be in marriage to Neil legally, to Beaumont's desires, or to Legendre's aims. She is the center of the conflict presented in WHITE ZOMBIE. As with Legendre, several elements are condensed in her constructed persona but in a special way. Her manifest status is that of threatened female victim. But her latent role is also significant. Madeline represents Haiti itself: the battleground for domination between what is seen as a legal possession by the U.S. forces and the illegal threat of the alien force represented by Legendre.
In a different way from Legendre, Madeline condenses the guilt feelings occasioned by U.S. occupation. She personally experiences what has happened to Haiti, moving from the freedom of life to the slavery of death. Her wedding gown is shroud-like, connoting her passage from individual innocence to propertied death. Earlier, preparing for the wedding ceremony, Madeline had appeared undressed, wearing underwear with a map of Haiti design. Madeline is possessed partner within the capitalist marriage institution and Haiti is North American property. In her zombie state, she loses all will power and thus echoes Haiti's plight deprived of government and Constitution.
Dr. Bruner represents white colonialist Christianity opposed to the native voodoo religion of the oppressed. He seems a benevolent missionary aiding Neil, but is also a cog in the imperialist machine despite his long residence in Haiti. He has remarkable links with Legendre, the "shadow" representative of U.S. colonialism. Just as Legendre uses voodoo, Dr. Bruner similarly uses it or benefits from its associations. Legendre first appears at the roadside wearing dark "Quaker" hat and cloak. Bruner wears similar clothes. Madeline initially mistakes Bruner for Legendre in the garden, and a dog's howl announces his arrival, the same howl that occurs in the graveyard scene where Beaumont appears with Legendre.
To Neil, Bruner says, "Because I'm a preacher, they think I'm a magician." Although he scientifically rationalizes Madeline's zombie condition, he finally has to resort to voodoo to save her. Bruner enlists the aid of a Negro houngan, inversely paralleling Legendre's use of a magician. In the castle scenes, we see a shadow on the floor that seems to be Legendre's zombie magician; we later realize it is Bruner in disguise. Finally, when Bruner puts out his hand to prevent Madeline from killing Neil, we hear on the soundtrack the same tones earlier accompanying Legendre's successful attempt on Madeline's mind. If Bruner has not been drawn undeniably into the heart of darkness, as was Mrs. Rand in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, he is already on the way.
Important elements exist in this film concerning its contemporary heritage. In terms of mise-en-scene, displacement occurs in two major ways: denial of contemporary history and use of location.
As we have already seen, the film has no reference to recent politics or history. Were it not for a recognizable location, WHITE ZOMBIE could have been set anywhere in the European Ruritanias of Universal horror movies. By denying contemporary history, the film displaces class (imperialist) politics and economics on to the levels of the personal, sexual property rights, and magic-voodoo. Yet because the film has been set in a clearly definable historical location, where U.S. landowners rule over huge estates and Negro slaves work in the mills, the transposition is not an easy one. Disturbing elements remain. But WHITE ZOMBIE diminishes the force of its location by removing the conflict from identifiable Haiti to the mythical Universal-like world of the Castle of the Living Dead.
The Castle of the Living Dead is Legendre's fantasy estate on an indefinable part of Haiti. Inside this mountaintop castle, Madeline is the captive princess. Her clothes now denote her change of status. She is no longer the modern American. Within the Gothic interiors, she wears an Elizabethan costume with spider's web design and plays Liszt on the piano to a repentant Beaumont.
Legendre's Castle presumably belongs to the French colonial occupation of Haiti. It is the Europe of Frankenstein's heritage, where innocent North America ventures at its peril away from its supposedly uncontaminated heartland. Legendre's rise in status accompanies Beaumont's decline. In the Castle, Legendre now wears a well-cut tailored suit in contrast to the shabby clothes worn at the mill. His power becomes absolute, uniting the supernatural to the economic. In his final scenes he wears a tuxedo similar to that worn earlier by Beaumont.
But the Castle does not represent a completely alien world. It provides a macabre mirror image to those other worlds outside. Inside, Legendre and his zombie bodyguard rule over Madeline, Beaumont, Silver and the Negro maids. That locale and its social relations parallel Beaumont's plantation (with its butler, Negro maids and livened servants) and Legendre's mill with its similar hierarchical divisions.
Finally, good triumphs over evil in a fantasy resolution. Beaumont redeems his decadence by pushing Legendre into the sea after his zombie bodyguard and Beaumont falls in as well. Both the monstrous European and the decadent un-American symbols vanish from the scene, leaving Madeline and the audience to reawake to "reality." As Madeline becomes conscious, her last words to Neil are, "Oh, Neil, I dreamed." The lovers' attempted embrace is interrupted by Dr. Bruner's request: "Excuse me, but have you got a match?" As the white colonial figure and alter ego to Legendre, Bruner remains to restore normality and repression. The film ends.
Two years after the release of WHITE ZOMBIE, U.S. occupation ended. By 1934 the last Marine had left. Haiti's nightmare ended, but the deep scars left on the national psyche are evident today. Although we do not know, after fifty years, how much was deliberately intentional in the film, the film has much to say about U.S. imperialism then. WHITE ZOMBIE provides an important example of the disguised and suppressed radical critique the horror genre can often manifest.
DECEMBER 14 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)
To comment on White Zombie is a task that daunts me. This minor classic, with its wealth of haunting imagery, has been commented on, criticized and analyzed by so many people, that I wonder what I can add.
Not that I haven't thought about the film. Stills from it ran in Famous Monsters of Filmland, the magazine that taught me respect for old horror films; those stills fed my imagination in those pre-cable, pre-home video days. As a kid, I was forever making my own mental movies out of photos seen in FM. White Zombie was no exception, but unlike other old horror films I wondered about and dreamed of, White Zombie did not disappoint my older self when I finally got to see it.
I first saw White Zombie in my twenties. My best friend and I were celebrating Halloween, and part of that celebration included screening at his apartment the public library's 16mm film print of the movie. Despite the print's splices, scratches, and soft sound, this screening of White Zombie planted indelible memories in my mind, strengthened further by seeing Roan's 2008 DVD release.
White Zombie is the story of Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron), two young people engaged to be married, who are traveling in Haiti. Their host and friend Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer) covets Madeline for himself. Beaumont seeks the assistance of the notorious -- and rather too-melodramatically named -- mill owner Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi), who uses zombies to work his plantation. Legendre gives Beaumont a small container of a certain drug. Madeline seemingly dies from inhaling the drug and is entombed in a crypt. She is later removed from the crypt by Legendre and his zombie slaves. The empty grave is discovered by the devastated Neil, who enlists his friend Dr. Bruner to rescue Madeline from Legendre's grasp.
An independent production released in the summer of 1932, White Zombie was the first zombie film ever made. Unlike Universal's horror hits Dracula, Frankenstein (both 1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), it was not adapted from a literary source, though it drew some of its lore from journalist Wm. S. Seabrooks' 1929 book The Magic Island, the first book in English to describe Haitian voodoo practices. White Zombie may have drawn some elements from a play produced in New York and Chicago in February 1932, Zombie. (The writer, Kenneth S. Webb thought so -- he sued White Zombie's producers, Victor and Edward Halperin for infringement--but lost.)
White Zombie certainly displays influences from the horror films of Universal. Borrowing sets from Dracula and Frankenstein (among others), the film also stars Dracula's Bela Lugosi. Also like Dracula, White Zombie features a creepy carriage ride early in the film. (In this sequence the hero and heroine encounter Lugosi leading his zombies in a way that led me to think of a much later film -- Bergman's The Seventh Seal, with its famous image of Death leading a knight and his friends.) The central character of Lugosi's Murder Legendre certainly looks like a Universal baddie -- the makeup was designed and applied by Universal's makeup maven, Jack Pierce.
In turn, White Zombie influenced other films, defining the cinematic "rules" that more or less characterized movie depictions of zombies until George Romero's 1968 influential independent Night of the Living Dead was released. It also uses sound better than was common at the time, using music to create mood, an uncommon practice in the early years of talking pictures, and often startles the viewer with the use of the piercing cry of a vulture.
Like most independent productions of the time, the budget for White Zombie was small, and it shows in the casting choices. Excepting Lugosi, most of the players were silent film stars who careers had faded, and their performances are broad. Some major bloopers were left in, suggesting few takes being shot in the 11-day production. For example, one zombie, who is interestingly wearing an Iron Cross and a leg brace (suggesting a fallen WWI soldier), is clearly alive: his breath shows in the cold night air. (Hey, aren't these guys supposed to be in tropical Haiti and dead?) Another blooper is a shot of what is clearly a falcon being called a vulture. Finally, near the end, a comic blooper occurs when Lugosi's butler is tossed into a whirlpool by the zombies: actor Brandon Hurst holds his nose just as he's being tossed into the water!
Although the film is sometimes stagy, there is more camera movement than in Dracula, and one long scene in Dr. Bruner's study is done with no cuts, though the camera moves around; Hitchcock would likely have appreciated this experiment in technique.
The eyes and hands of characters get a lot of closeup time in the film. Frequently we see the close, disembodied eyes of Murder Legendre superimposed over the zombies as he influences them from afar -- reminiscent of the hypnotic powers of Dracula -- and his hands often clench together in a magical gesture when he makes the zombies carry out his will. (The first shot we see of Lugosi is his hand entering the frame.) We also see in closeup Madeline holding hands with Neil at their abortive wedding ceremony. This Expressionist-like use of visual syndoche substitutes the eyes for one's will and the hands for one's actions.
One scene in particular is Expressionistic: the scene in a nightclub where Neil broods over the loss of Madeline. We see no other patrons, just their shadows on the wall behind him. The eerie shadows emphasize how alone and powerless the character is.
It's no surprise that the film feels like a silent film at times. With its Expressionist touches, and the use of past-it silent film actors like Bellamy and Harron (whose mannerisms and flat line readings are ill-suited to sound film), White Zombie seemed somewhat old-fashioned even when it was new. But it compensates for this with a consistently somber mood, startling use of sound effects like the vulture's screams and the sound of the creaking mill that grinds up one of the zombies, and effective use of camera movement.
For a broadly acted, old-fashioned-even-then melodrama, there are some interesting ambiguities. The film suggests that some zombies are reanimated dead (one is shot several times with no ill effect.) But the hero's missionary friend Dr. Bruner, the "Van Helsing" of the story, says that the zombies are not; the heroine, zombified by a potion given her by Legendre, turns out in the end to be made into a zombie only temporarily.
There is moral ambiguity as well, some of it presented through old-fashioned costume choices: the thoroughly evil Legendre, the not-entirely-rotten Charles Beaumont, and the good Dr. Bruner are all seen at some point in the film wearing black hats and overcoats, suggesting that evil deeds tempt every one. More interestingly, the "good" Dr. Bruner attempts to murder the evil Murder by hiding and stabbing him from behind--clearly a morally ambiguous act even in a tale of this type.
The Roan restoration features commentary by Gary Don Rhodes, a noted film historian and author of White Zombie: A Critical Look at the Film and a History of Its Production. Rhodes says in the commentary that he does not believe that the word "white" in the title refers only to the virginal state of the unambiguously good character of Madeline Short -- as opposed to, say, "scarlet" -- and is not meant to denote race. This is somewhat difficult to accept, given the White Zombie film poster has this text: SHE WAS NOT ALIVE... NOR DEAD... Just a WHITE ZOMBIE Performing his every desire! This strongly hints at the dehumanizing practice of "white slavery, " a now-outmoded term referring to "enforced prostitution," according to Merriam-Webster's. Although someone of any race could be forced into prostitution, "white" was used to distinguish the practice from the legal enslavement of black people. Also, given that zombies were then defined only as black Haitian victims of voodoo (or properly, "voudon") and race-conscious titles like White Savage were being made by Hollywood as late as the mid-forties, it becomes impossible to think White Zombie doesn't play on multiple meanings of the word "white."
White Zombie is neither a classic of the stature of the Universal Gothic horrors of the 1930s, nor a dragging potboiler with ham-fisted acting, these being two extreme critical opinions of this once-forgotten movie. It resides in film history somewhere in the middle, being an atmospheric, influential film with a fine performance by Bela Lugosi. Every horror fan and cinephile should see this film, preferably with the lights out.
Rhodes, Gary Don. Audio Commentary. White Zombie. DVD. Roan Group Archival Entertainment, 1999.
Thanks to Max Cheney for the guest review. Be sure to drop by Max's blog, The Drunken Severed Head.