Music: Abe Meyer Cinematography: Arthur Martinelli
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn and Robert Frazer
Dracula, nearly succeeded. Though White Zombie is something on the order of a Z-grade movie, it has a lot going for it. The story is based on the novel The Magic Island by William Seabrook, its title a reference to the blonde woman in her wedding dress being turned into a zombie. Though this was an independent production, many of the interiors were shot at Universal Studios and made use of their extensive back lot to create one of the more effective early horror efforts. The Halperin’s also had the use of Jack Pierce to do the makeup, as well as one of Universal’s stars in Bela Lugosi and the success of the film at the time was no doubt largely due to his presence. The other actors are not nearly as successful and they tend to bring the production down considerably, and were primarily responsible for negative reviews during its initial release. The acting is still bad today, but the film has its own charm and does have some nice touches.
The story begins with the credits appearing over a throng of singing blacks in Haiti burying a body in the middle of the road. This is something settlers heading out to the American West used to do to prevent the corpses from being dug up. Like the opening of Dracula, a stagecoach rides into view, with John Harron and his fiancé Madge Bellamy newly arrived on the island. They are stopped by none other than Bela Lugoi, first introduced as a pair of eyes. He says nothing as he places his hand on Bellamy’s scarf. But when zombies begin coming down the hill like something George Romero would shoot nearly forty years later, driver Clarence Muse takes off leaving the scarf in Lugosi’s hands. At the plantation the couple meet the minister, Joseph Cawthorn, who tries to warn them about their host, Robert Frazer, who it turns out wants Bellamy for his own. Frazer then goes to the owner of a sugar mill, Bela Lugosi, and asks him for help, promising anything in return. Lugosi gives him a potion to give to Bellamy, which induces a death-like trance on her wedding night, and they hold a funeral for her on the plantation. Harron then gives into a drunken depression and wanders out into the graveyard only to find Bellamy’s casket has been stolen along with her body. Naturally, Harron enlists the help of Cawthorn who is eager to discover the truth behind the myths.
Despite the poor production values, there are some nice artistic touches by director Victor Halperin and his cameraman Arthur Martinelli. The superimposition of Lugosi’s eyes in the beginning of the film, as well as his face in a glass of champagne are well done, as are the split screen of Harron and Bellamy toward the end. Halperin also makes good use of the crypt set, shot from inside, to create what amounts to an iris effect, and uses some interesting framing devices and moving cameras throughout. When Harron is in Cawthorn’s office telling him about the disappearance of Bellamy, the scene begins by shooting Cawthorn’s face through Harron’s arm, and at the end of the scene it returns to the same place for the fadeout. Likewise, Halperin was able to get the most out of his time at Universal, and the great hall from Dracula, as well as the exterior matte shot of the castle, are impressive. One negative on the technical side, but standard procedure for early talkies, is the lack of a film score. The only music cues--when Lugosi is putting Bellamy into the trance with a wax voodoo doll, or in the ruined castle where Lugosi lives--are not stock music but new recordings of obscure classical pieces by musical director Abe Meyer that don’t go with the action very well at all.
The star of the film is clearly Lugosi, and he seems much more confident here than he did the year before in Dracula. There are even some jokes in the script, like when Lugosi emphasizes the word “wine.” The gesture with the interlocking hands when he controls the zombie’s is a nice one, and Jack Pierce’s makeup is a great look for the villain of the piece. The only other notable performance, however, even though it is a tiny role, has to be Clarence Muse. While saddled with the stereotype of the frightened black man, all bulging eyes and quavering voice, he actually manages to instill some dignity in his role, probably because he keeps his voice very serious and refuses to go overboard with the facial characterization. As for the rest of the cast, they are what they are, has-beens from the silent era who aren’t really up for the challenge or, in the case of Cawthorn, badly miscast. Though the film has received more positive attention recently, especially with the Roan restoration, White Zombie an uneven production at best with some impressive visuals and a nice performance by Bela Lugosi.