I thought about discussing Dawn of the Dead for my next column at Examiner, as I was feeling zombie-ish. However, I decided to go back to where it all began, to the very first zombie film, White Zombie. This was unfortunate, because White Zombie kinda sucks. However, I didn’t want the experience to go to waste, so let’s get to bloggy-bloggin’.
White Zombie is an independent filmmaking success story. Produced by brothers Victor and Edward Halperin, the film was made in 11 days on a budget of $50,000, with the brothers filming on still-standing sets that were built for the Universal classics Dracula and Frankenstein. I’m not sure Victor could direct worth a damn, but I gotta give the Halperins props. ELEVEN DAYS?!!?
The film starts with our heroine Madeleine (awfully played by Madge Bellamy; more on that later) traveling by coach in the fog on a dark night in the Haitian jungle. An ominous pair of eyes dissolves over the scene, an inspiringly haunting effect. Soon, our heroine is caught under the spell of Haitian voodoo master Bela Lugosi. Yes, a white Hungarian is playing a Haitian voodoo master. Just go with it.
Lugosi has the biggest name on the poster, but the star of White Zombie is the spooky atmosphere. The dark, unsettling quiet is reminiscent of the productions of Val Lewton. White Zombie feels like the bridge between Lewton’s work in the and Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr.
White Zombie ain’t perfect, not by a longshot. The acting is just plain atrocious, hammy and stilted and unintentionally hilarious at times. (Madeleine’s transformation into a zombie is a particular highlight.) Thankfully, Lugosi’s magnetism is riveting, and overcomes some particularly awkward line readings. His performance compelled me to keep watching, and frankly, I was rooting for him to zombify everybody.
White Zombie blows, but it is extremely influential. It’s also only 68 minutes long, an approach I wish The Omen had taken.
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