The first feature length zombie movie to hit the big screen, White Zombie is less about the Haitian voodoo myths that captivated the west in the 1930s following the publication of books such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island, and more about the total possession of the white, female body. Hollywood’s zombie would never have been born if it weren’t for the carrying over of stories from Haiti to America by writers such as Seabrook, whose overblown and lurid accounts of “exotic” mysticism had turned the nightmare of the living, walking corpse into a recognisable “monster”. And yet, despite taking Haiti as its backdrop, this 1932 film is far more concerned with the fight for ownership of its leading lady, Madeline, who spends most of the time walking around in a comatose state, whilst the men of the cast battle for ultimate power over her.
The men in question are Neil Parker, her American husband, Charles Beaumont, a dandyish man obsessively in love with her, and Murder Legendre (played by Bela Lugosi), an evil “voodoo master” who provides Beaumont with the means to make Madeline his own. Under the influence of a mysterious powder, she seemingly dies, and is then resurrected as the “white zombie” of the title, mute and willing to perform her master’s every desire. Beaumont begins to have second thoughts, however, once he realises that Madeline’s “ti bon ange” has been removed. She has no personality, no soul, and this drives her admirer mad as he desires more than just her body. “I thought that beauty alone would satisfy. But the soul is gone. I can’t bear those empty, staring eyes” he bemoans, only to find Legendre unsympathetic, and more than willing to take Madeline’s body for his own. “I have other plans for Mademoiselle” he sickeningly taunts, the film revealing its main preoccupation: the desire of the male to contain and control the female’s sexuality. The story cannot conclude until the woman is safely back in the arms of the good, American man. Her final lines, “Neil, I-I dreamed”, whilst staring into his eyes, prove that she was always his, despite being physically removed from him. He is her protector, but also her final captor, as she and her sexuality are now safely in the hands of a trusty male companion.
The story of White Zombie‘s production says a lot about the lowly position of the zombie movie throughout most of cinematic history. An assemblage of rooms and props from other horror movies, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frankenstein, and The Cat and the Canary, its sets were not its own, but were pieced together hand-me-downs, sourced by Ralph Berger due to budget constraints. Following the film’s release, it was critically slated, labelled both a bore and a confusing mess. Little to no major studios were interested in pursuing the zombie any further, and the slow-moving monster was inherited by Hollywood’s poverty row studios. However, despite being ripped to shreds by the film critics, White Zombie did fantastically at the box office, grossing $8 million, far more than the Halperins had ever expected. So why the lack of enthusiasm?
Perhaps the reason for the absence of major interest in the zombie legend at the time, was its lack of western literary history. Doomed to forever haunt the space between fact and fiction, the knowable and the unknowable, the zombie at this time stood for a culture that was at once intriguing, yet ultimately foreign. Haitian voodoo was to suffer another three decades of being twisted and exploited, before George A. Romero was to finally drag the zombie right to the forefront of the American conscience, as a symbol not of distant mysticism, but of a very western consumerism and hollowness. ‘Here is your zombie’, he was to say to his audience, with his groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead, ‘it is not voodoo that you can separate yourself from and observe with scientific interest, it is you, and me, and everyone you know’.
Despite its flaws, this film cannot be ignored as the starting point of a canon of films that were to continually develop, and delve into the human psyche in a variety of shocking and absorbing ways. Often beautiful to look at, certain scenes, such as the one with Neil going mad in the bar as large silhouettes of couples dance on the wall behind him, make this a worthwhile watch. The story brings into question issues of female autonomy which are still relevant to this day, and which were to be explored further (and arguably better) in films such as 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie. The female has often stood as a symbol of mystery and danger, and so it is no surprise that films such as these were zombifying them left, right and center. It is for this very reason that White Zombie is an important if problematic horror, as through it we can explore the anxiety related to feminine sexuality. A must for any zombie aficionado, the film is arguably most interesting as a point of reference for just how much the zombie genre has morphed and evolved over the years (compare this to Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, and it is strange to think that the two films are cut from the same cloth). Continually able to shape shift into a number of different cultural and historical anxieties, the zombie remains a cinematic monster rich in meaning, despite its apparent emptiness.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★