I mean, once upon a time they couldn’t sit at the cool monsters’ table with Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and Imhotep the Mummy. I’m glad for them. Really.
But… I guess I have some issues with what passes for a zombie lately.
Today’s representations of zombies tend to focus on the relatively new premise of a zombie apocalypse, on zombie-ism as a modern plague. Such a concept totally spaces out on the occult origins of this most exotic of horror creatures. Lately, the emphasis on zombies as horrific, contagious beings has led us to neglect the notion of the walking dead as victims of external control—a kind of interpersonal imperialism or supernatural bondage, if you will. I long for the days where one didn’t merely become a zombie, but was turned into one.
I miss that key figure, the bokor, the wicked Voodoo necromancer capable of raising an army of cadavers from their graves and forcing them to do his wicked bidding. The concept of a sorcerer willing to enslave his fellow humans scares me much more than all the gross-out zombies in the world. Perhaps the bokor has gone out of fashion along with the idea of the soul.
In place of the alienation or contamination metaphors that we get in post-Romero zombie films, the original celluloid zombies played out morbid variations on the theme of domination. Reaping the heritage of the Gothic, White Zombie traces a twisted story of sexual obsession, like most films of the original talkie horror cycle. The poster definitely plays up the kink angle with taglines like, “She was neither alive nor dead… Just a white zombie, performing his every desire!”
The story centers on a perky, sweet couple—exquisite Madeleine and her affable fiancé Neil come to Haiti to celebrate their wedding at a friend’s plantation. Unfortunately, that friend, wealthy Monsieur Beaumont, carries a torch for Madeleine, so he asks the diabolical sorcerer ‘Murder’ Legendre to help him win the damsel to his will. Of course, that doesn’t work out so well for Neil—or indeed for Beaumont, because Legendre changes Madeleine into a white zombie (…and we have a title!) that he plans to keep for his own pleasure.
Apart from its important status as the first zombie movie, White Zombie also deserves recognition as a landmark indie horror film. Brothers Victor and Edward Halperin, the film’s director and producer, were pioneers who borrowed sets from Universal horror flicks to shoot their movie in 11 days. Even without the infrastructure of the studio system, the Halperins delivered a classic that stands up to—and in some ways surpasses—the more high-profile horror monuments of the time.
In particular, the soundtrack paints a rich, full sense of place, in contrast to an era of relative silence in cinema, ironically brought on by the talkies. The use of Caribbean-sounding music provides appropriate emotional cues. Better yet, a range of authentic diegetic sounds, from shrill cricket chirps to Voodoo drums to the wince-inducing creak of a sugar mill, make us squirm.
White Zombie also excels at exploring psychological states through unusual trick effects, especially skillful double exposures. For instance, after Madeleine’s burial, Neil tries to drink away his sorrows in a dive bar, but sees his beloved’s face in every fleeing shadow. The contrast between the white veil of her apparition and the dark silhouettes on the wall imbue the scene with a phantasmagoric ambiance worthy of high German Expressionism.
The Halperins also cannily showcase Bela Lugosi by featuring his hypnotic eyes even more prominently than Dracula did. His eyes mesmerize as they appear floating through the landscape, sparkling in a glass of champagne, or headed straight towards the camera, as he walks into a harrowing extreme close-up.
His gleaming peepers, ever-present, seem to survey everything, omniscient and menacing. In fact, those disembodied eyes are the first we see of ‘Murder’ Legendre, superimposed over the Haitian landscape, until they shrink to little pinpoints on either side of his silhouette. We understand that this dark stranger can see you, whether he’s looking at you or not. Having viewed a nice print of White Zombie only on the small screen of my laptop, I can barely begin to imagine how looming and oppressive those glowing eyes must be when they flash on a movie theater screen. It must feel like the film is not being watched, but rather is watching you.
On a thematic level, a number of ceremonies—and inversions of ceremonies—structure this chilling fairy tale. The film begins with a funeral, transitions to a wedding, then modulates back to a funeral, after Madeleine, the maiden bride, is poisoned and laid to rest in her crypt. However, the implicit fear of these ceremonies being undone adds a layer of complexity and dread to each ritual. The native burial that opens the film takes place in the middle of a road, in order to assure that the grave won’t be robbed and that its occupant won’t be compelled to live eternally as an undead slave.
As the traditional wedding takes place at Beaumont’s plantation, Legendre performs another ritual in the garden below, carving a wax candle into a Voodoo doll of the bride. Whereas the Christian ceremony of marriage emphasizes purity, Legendre makes a mockery of this, whittling an anatomically correct nude figure. Even seen in a long shot, the gleeful obscenity of the sculpture reminds us that we’re dealing with pre-Code horror.
Lugosi’s dancing hands and surreptitious smile leave no doubt that this kind of remote-control violation both echoes and undermines the simultaneous wedding vows. Even Madeleine’s solemn burial is shortly reversed when Legendre and his zombie henchmen break into her tomb and make off with her cadaver.
Yet, for all this subversion of Christian ritual, White Zombie suggests that love goes a whole lot further than ’til death do us part. As Neil sleeps outside the castle where Madeleine lingers as a catatonic prisoner, a lyrical series of split screens and unusual wipes telepathically connects the pair.
At one point, an image lifts like a curtain, recalling how a groom lifts the veil to kiss his bride. In contrast to the static wedding scene, this distinctly filmic visual poem, accompanied by angelic, soulful native choirs, represents a mystical wedding of souls. Love, the thing that justifies all of our rituals, has is own secrets, stronger than death or black magic.