In the Beginning, There Was Silence

In 1926, Warner Bros released The Jazz Singer, Hollywood’s first ‘talking’ motion picture and within a few short years, the silent era had for audiences passed the way of the wax cylinder. But the legacy of the silents lingered for a time in the films and pictures like White Zombie (1932) inhabit a similar kind of netherworld to that explored in the film itself.

    White Zombie posterCredit: Wikimedia Commons/unknownAs the title suggests, White Zombie deals with creatures who have one metaphorical foot in the grave, beings that bridge two different states of being, and likewise the film forms an uneasy link between silent and sound. In a genre that often deals with strange experiments, one could try ‘watching’ White Zombie in sound only, such is the greater confidence in its aural dimensions than its verbal aspects or visual compositions. The conflict between the three – and, at times, the collaboration – gives the film a dreamlike quality, as if it had actually happened to someone, far away in time and distance; we had almost forgotten them and we hear their voice call at the back of our mind.

    We begin in Haiti, and an engaged couple, Neil Parker (John Harron) and Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) are being driven by horse-and-carriage to a friend’s plantation, where their wedding ceremony is to take place. They soon encounter a ritual of a different sort – voodoo. The locals are burying a man in the road, in order to confuse his spirit and prevent the man from wandering around after his funeral. This, according to the coach driver, is a common problem in these parts, and we guess that the next character we meet, the mysterious ‘Murder’ Legendre (Bela Lugosi), has something to do with the restless deceased.

    OK, here are some tourist tips for whenever you find yourself in a horror film. First, don’t go to Haiti to get married. On the list of no-nos, it’s only one down from Transylvania and little better than the Black Lagoon; second, never trust anyone with the nickname ‘Murder’, for reasons which I pray are obvious, and; third, if you meet Bela Lugosi, just forget your plans and run for the hills. If nothing else, he will steal your silk scarf and glower at you with eyebrows only the make-up artist for Frankenstein (Jack Pierce) could thatch together. Come to mention it, running for the hills would do you little good in White Zombie, as Lengendre’s eyes follow you about the film, a special effect intended to demonstrate his paranormal omnipotence, but instead gives the film an old-fashioned feel even for its time, perhaps a result on the reliance of exaggerated ‘eye acting’ in the silent films.

    Neil and Madeline make it to the plantation and meet with their friend Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). Charles pines with unrequited love for Madeline and has brought the couple to Haiti in a last-ditch effort to win her favour. Madeline has eyes only for Neil and so Charles enlists the aid of Legendre and visits him at the sugar mill he owns. It’s fair to say the sugar made at Legendre’s would not win a Fair Trade certificate. In a haunting sequence, Beaumont watches as dozens of men and women shuffle in and out of the mill, dropping bundles of sugarcane into a grinding machine. Beaumont explains his problem to Legendre, who gives him a vial of powder; once administered, it will plunge Madeline into a coma indistinguishable from death until sufficient time passes and she can be retrieved from her grave. Madeline will become just like Legendre’s workers – a zombie.         

Origin of the Zombies

    Zombie movies are common these days but in 1932, preparing for the zombie apocalypse was not a known pastime. The man who brought them, and voodoo, to the national consciousness was William Seabrook, a man worth a film in himself, who began his writing career as a newspaper reporter in Augusta, Georgia. After serving with honor in World War One, Seabrook worked for a number of notable publications and traveled the world in search of the occult and the satanic, and these became the subjects of his books. In Jungle Ways (1930), Seabrook relates how a West African tribal chief tried to describe the taste of human flesh to his guest, but could not do so, inspiring Seabrook to experiment for himself at home in France, where he procured a sample of the required meat with the assistance of a medical student. There can’t be many ex-writers of the Reader’s Digest who have cooked and eaten human steak, but in the 1930s, you did what you had to do to make a living. And, in case you were wondering, Seabrook reported that it tasted much like veal. In 1929, Seabrook had a bestseller with The Magic Island, in which he described his experiences of voodoo rituals in Haiti. White Zombie is based around Seabrook’s account, although whether zombies can be controlled by mesmeric glowering and the ‘zombie grip’, an arthritic-looking display of callanetics, as Legendre does here, is open to question.

    The day of the wedding arrives and Charles achieves a new level of attainment in the field of friend-zoning, as he pleads with Madeline to accept his love while escorting her up the aisle to the marriage ceremony. Madeline, thinking Charles’ timing a touch off, declines, but accepts his offer of a final gift – a rose contaminated with Legendre’s powder. Madeline takes a hooterful of scent, gets hitched, and collapses during the reception, apparently dead. This makes the union even shorter than Madge Bellamy’s real-life marriage in 1928, when she split from her new husband after four days and divorced him in three months. Frazer and BellamyCredit: Wikimedia Common/Fredojoda

    Neil, the new husband, and even newer widow, is distraught and seeks the help of a Christian missionary, Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) who has lived on Haiti for thirty years and become an expert on local customs. Dr Bruner soon becomes a tiresome fellow to the viewer thanks to White Zombie’s block-headed approach to characterisation and dialogue, saddling the missionary with the ‘comic relief’ label and one of the dullest catchphrases in film history (“Excuse me, have you got a match?”). Dr Bruner is a good-natured bumbler, Legendre is villainous, Neil is heroic, Charles is torn, Madeline is a woman and that’s about as far as it goes. White Zombie has an often striking soundtrack; the cacophony of the sugar mill (which makes the inanimate building seem alive, emphasising the deadness of those working within), or the sudden screeching of the vulture which follows Legendre around the island (as if in tribute to Poe’s Raven), the dialogue has a cracked and stony feel to it, which only the actor with the style (many critics would hesitate to call it a skill) of Lugosi can handle, contorting it to suit his smooth delivery, but the other actors just aren’t up to the job. Those writing about White Zombie in the past have put down its feverish fairy-tale feel to the inadequacy of the cast, who are ill-served by the frequent melodramatic dialogues, which is itself often sandwiched by long stretches of silence.

    Charles, Legendre and his zombies prise Madeline out of her tomb and install her at the plantation. Life with his love is not all Charles had wished: “I thought beauty alone would satisfy,” he despairs, “but the soul is gone.” Madeline’s deadened spirit is conveyed by music; she plays mechanically at the piano, her performance lifeless and blank, in a scene that recalls the later Carnival of Souls (1962), where Mary Henry (Candace Hilligloss) is dismissed from her job as church organist for her soulless playing.

    Charles is appalled by Madeline’s transformation into an almost literal trophy wife, and complains to Legendre. This is a bad idea, as Legendre’s retinue of zombies are comprised of people who have complained to him in the past: policeman, law officials, a neighbor who complained about the noise the vulture was making, all now are zombies who act as protectors to the man they once despised. Legendre proposes a toast in wine, to a happy future, rather than good health; just as well, as the wine was contaminated and Charles spends the rest of the film slowly turning into a zombie.

    Neil and Dr Bruner decide to take on Legendre in his clifftop castle, where he now has Madeline and Charles in his power. Making camp on the shore, Neil forges ahead while Dr Bruner, once more in possession of a match, settles down for a smoke. Neil confronts Legendre in his lair, an impressive set which gives a sense of scale; part of the Universal lot, it was often used for horror films of the time. Legendre overpowers Neil and compels the zombie Madeline to cut the marital bonds for all time by taking a knife to her husband. Before she can do so, Dr Bruner intervenes and Neil recovers, but Legendre summons his zombies. “What are they?” cries Neil, to Lugosi draws his accent draws up to its full height and responds, “For you, my friend, they are the angels of death!”

    Suffice to say, Neil, our hero, does his heroic thing, and with a final, fatal push from Charles, Legendre is sent tumbling over the edge of the cliff, followed by the other zombies, who topple into the sea one by one. Neil and Madeline, restored to life and holy matrimony embrace, only for Dr Bruner to shoehorn in his catchphrase one last time, bring the film to a close.

Strange Sounds and Second Sights

    Bela LugosiCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Victor HalperinWhite Zombie, in comparison to another horror film of 1932, The Old Dark House, lacks that film’s slick crispness, and it is difficult to care much about any of its characters. Whereas The Old Dark House saw smart dialogue, and set design working together with some imaginative direction, the creative elements within White Zombie seem ill at ease with each other, giving the film an out of balance tone which is contemporary only in fits and starts; it pauses as if to gather strength for its next efforts towards fluidity and visual dynamism to which it never becomes quite accustomed. It is if all has been given to the new dimension of sound, to the neglect of the film’s visuals, which remain as primitive and traditional as the voodoo practices it depicts. Good use is made of classical music, making for an interesting contrast with the native chanting and recitals, but the actors appear stagey and ‘positioned’, as if in a macabre tableaux. This in itself is not a bad thing, and White Zombie often succeeds in disturbing the viewer, and moments return to you after the film has passed on its way: Legendre’s zombies quietly killing Beaumont’s butler by drowning him in a water mill; a hapless worker zombie falling into the merciless, crunching sugarcane grinder; Neil’s tortured cry at discovering his wife’s empty tomb; Legendre wrapping Madeline’s scarf around a lit candle in an act of voodoo, watched over by a vulture. Such scenes however feel ‘presented’ to the viewer, and you half-expect stage cards to appear on the side of the screen, announcing the name of each scene. The Old Dark House succeeded as a whole piece; White Zombie succeeds only in pieces. Bela Lugosi does his best to give the film a centre of gravity around which the rest of the film can revolve, but it is beyond the effort of one performance.

Onward and Downward

    As for the rest of the cast, they share the fate of scores of actors who star in a horror or fantasy film, or alongside a legend such as Lugosi; ask any jobbing actor who appeared as second alien on the left in a Star Trek episode and you will understand what I mean. For Madge Bellamy, former silent star and stage actor, White Zombie marked the end of a three year career break imposed upon her by her studio, Fox, after refusing to appear in 1929’s The Trial of Mary Dugan; this a year after starring in the studio’s first ever talkie, Mother Knows Best (1928). White Zombie did little to resurrect her career and she drifted away from the films, only to make the news in 1943 for shooting at a man she claimed had jilted her for another woman.

    Robert Frazer has a part in movie history of a sort, playing cinema’s first Robin Hood in a Rialto, White ZombieCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Unknownshort made in 1912, at the start of an acting career that by the early 1940s numbered over two hundred credits, including 1934’s The Trail Beyond with John Wayne. Black Dragons (1942) saw him onscreen with Bela Lugosi again, but aside from that, the majority of Frazer’s films have long since sunk into obscurity. Joseph Cawthorn first took to the stage in 1872 at the age of four, debuted on Broadway aged sixteen and starred in the 1929 film version of The Taming of the Shrew, one of his rare dramatic roles in a career that mostly consisted of comedies and musicals, including The Great Ziegfield (1936). John Harron owed more than most to the silent age of cinema; as the younger brother of star Robert Harron, John received a leg-up into film, and after his brother’s unexplained death in 1920 (a suspected suicide), the stage was clear for the younger brother to make it big, but instead he breezed through over a hundred-and-fifty minor appearances, often uncredited. Harron had the retrospective novelty of starring in a Ronald Reagan film, Code of the Secret Service in 1939, but he did not live to appreciate it; he died of meningitis later that same year.

    In all, White Zombie is an experience worth your time. At barely seventy minutes in length, at least if you are bored, you won’t be for long, and some modern-day films three times the length will bore you for more than the cost of a DVD. The film has a distinct legacy, and as you watch the film today, you can buy the t-shirt, read Gary Don Rhode’s detailed 2006 book on the film, listen to a album by the former heavy metal band White Zombie and scratch your head and wonder what happened to the proposed Tobe Hooper remake announced in 2009. Watch White Zombie, and you may find that, like all good members of the living dead, it will follow you long after you had thought yourself done with it.      

Here's the original trailer for 'White Zombie'