Bela Lugosi was a great actor, let me just say that right off the bat. Today, most people remember that he played Dracula and probably know about his work with Ed Wood at the end of his career. The Ed Wood stuff tends to make many see him in a negative light. But his performance as Dracula is fantastic, and even better is his take on Ygor in “Son of Frankenstein.” More great performances are to be found if you take the time to dig deeper, such as 1932’s White Zombie.
In the film, a young couple (Madge Bellamy and John Harron) has reunited in Haiti and is on their way to get married. They arrive at the plantation home of Charles Beaumont, where they intend to tie the knot. However, Beaumont wants the bride-to-be for himself. This prompts him to pay a visit to local voodoo master Murder Legendre, played by Lugosi, in hopes that he can help him win the girl. Legendre runs a sugar mill where all the workers are zombies. That little fact probably should’ve tipped Beaumont off that involving Legendre was not a good idea. Not to mention the fact that the man’s first name is “Murder!”
Beaumont and Legendre plot to turn the girl into a zombie by giving her a special potion at the wedding dinner. She doesn’t even get a chance to toss the bouquet before she’s suddenly fallen over dead. After being laid to rest in a crypt, Legendre and his crew of zombies retrieve her body.
Now Beaumont has the beautiful young zombie to himself…and she plays the piano, so aces there. But, apparently now that the life has left her eyes, Beaumont regrets his decision and asks Legendre to change her back. His response…he turns Beaumont into a zombie too. Now it’s all up to the mourning husband and his missionary buddy to defeat the zombies.
White Zombie is generally considered to be one of the first zombie movies. It was made shortly after Dracula and the filmmakers were able to reuse several of the sets created for the Universal horror films. But this film was not produced by Universal and had nowhere near the budget of films like Dracula or Frankenstein. Yet, it is an effective horror film that defined much of the zombie mythology we continue to see in films today.
There is a lot of visual creativity in this film. From the silhouettes of zombies walking down a hillside in the distance to the image of Lugosi appearing in a wine glass…the unique visuals keep the film intriguing throughout. This helps the film a great deal since, truth be told, the performances of the human characters are not all that great…with the notable exception of Lugosi. He has little dialogue, but so much is said in his expressions. Especially those eyes…those wonderfully creepy eyes! The other actors give performances like what you would expect from silent film stars still getting used to sound pictures. On the other hand, the actors playing the zombies are great! Sure they just walk around with those blank expressions, but they are genuinely scary. Little did those actors know the influence they would have on movie zombies for decades to follow.
This is a great movie for a creepy Halloween night. It’s not high on action, it’s pacing is slow…but it’s got a wonderfully eerie atmosphere. And who better to spend Halloween night with while you scarf down all that candy than Bela Lugosi?