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White Zombie (1932)

Long before the days of flesh-eating ghouls (and even longer before the days that said ghouls could vigorously cover far distances by means of sprinting), zombies – while still referred to as the “living dead” – were more case for alarm as a manifestation of voodoo and supernatural evil rather than virus-transmitting corpses. White Zombie knows nothing of George Romero (or Rob Zombie, for that matter), and nor is it as much a horror film as it is a talky melodrama with supernatural overtones. However, it does feature one of Bela Lugosi’s most overlooked performances, one that, due to poor business management, he earned a mere $500 for. That the film (which is readily available in the public domain) has generally fallen into disrepair is of little benefit, but it does offer an entertaining glimpse into the blossoming characteristics of the emerging horror drama, even if it doesn’t quite deliver the goods compared to many of its brethren of the time.

Opening with an unsettling shot of a burial site located in the middle of a road (where the Haiti natives bury their dead so as to dissuade potential grave robbers), White Zombie is intensely focused on its environment even when it suffers from the limitations of early silent filmmaking. While nowhere near as stagnant as Dracula, but hardly as invigorating as Frankenstein, White Zombie – perhaps unintentionally – builds a resonant trance all its own, reflecting the presence of the silent and soulless undead onto the audience. Lugosi is a shady witch doctor known to use resurrected corpses for slave labor in his sugar plantation; a love stricken man, hoping to win over the heart of an otherwise engaged girl, seeks his aid in gaining her attention. A special drug is used to fake her death, but the disappearance of her coffin and body finds her tortured husband hunting down clues as to her whereabouts, dead or alive. The ensuing climax is both predictable and exciting, wrapping up its tale with the triumphant power of love in the face of evil. White Zombie’s better qualities are most undercut by how quickly they dissipate once all is said and done.

Feature: Horror Marathon 2006