Zombies have become so popular that the corridors of our pop culture resound with ravenous moans for “Braaaiinns!” White Zombie, screening Saturday at the Plaza Theatre’s Silver Scream Spook Show, offers a kitschy reminder that the living dead weren’t always the decomposing cannibals of George Romero.
Follow the trail of body parts back a few decades, and you’ll find the origins of zombies in Haitian folklore. White Zombie shouldn't be mistaken for a documentary about voodoo traditions, though. Filmed in 1932 to ride the horror trend established by Frankenstein and Dracula, White Zombie fudges the detail as to whether zombies are walking corpses or living people enthralled by drugs and hypnotism.
Victor Halperin's film begins with a painfully white engaged couple, Neil and Madeline (John Harron and Madge Bellamy), stumbling across a burial ceremony shortly after their arrival in Haiti. They plan to marry as soon as possible at the estate of their new, wealthy friend Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer), having forgotten the old adage, “Don’t talk to strangers because they might try to zombify your fiancée and raid her coffin.” Desperate to steal Madeline for himself, Charles enlists the aid of a sinister plantation owner with the nefarious name of Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi, of course). Though Madeline seems to die on her wedding night, she’s actually become enthralled by Legendre.
Lugosi’s long, expressive fingers are practically a special effect unto themselves, and his silky-smooth delivery is delightfully menacing. Unfortunately, when he puts the whammy on his victims, White Zombie requires Lugosi to stand motionless and stare at the camera so much, it could be a drinking game. The rest of the cast provides a sampler’s platter of the overemoting acting styles of the early talkies, except for Bellamy, who’s such a huge-eyed simp, it’s hard to tell when she’s a zombie and when she’s not.
Legendre’s zombie helpers tend to be lumbering goobers more likely to frighten audiences with their tattered, tacky costumes than their dull-eyed menace. Nevertheless, White Zombie features a memorably chilling production design, including a spooky mansion on a craggy cliff and a nightmarish scene at Legendre’s mill: One undead laborer falls into a grinder and his zombified co-workers don’t bat an eye. They don’t seem nearly as motivated as the running zombies of contemporary films like 28 Days Later…. Perhaps zombie labor offered job security way back when.