Review: White Zombie (1933 movie)

A wealthy Haitian plantation owner has fallen instantly in love with a beautiful young woman he’s just met. Unfortunately for him, she’s just about to get married to a handsome young man in the next day or so in a private ceremony in Port-au-Prince, so in the faint hope of persuading her to change her mind, he has invited the couple to hold their wedding in the more luxurious surroundings of his plantation.

The film opens with the prospective bride and groom en route to said plantation in a horse-drawn coach. On the way they encounter a weird burial in progress in the roadway, and later they see what the terrified driver says are zombies stumbling home, appropriately enough from the graveyard shift. Then Bela Lugosi, the only name actor around, looks into the carriage while it’s stopped and manages to thoroughly creep out the young woman as well as make off with her scarf as a souvenir.

Lugosi, we later discover, is a sugar mill owner who learned magic from a voodoo priest and then treacherously transformed said priest, along with some inconvenient government officials, into zombies. His sugar mill is now entirely staffed by zombies, and non-union zombies at that, so his labor costs are tiny. Let’s hope Midwestern Republican governors don’t see this movie.

We also learn that contrary to legend, zombies are not reanimated corpses of the recently dead but rather people who are not dead at all, having merely been made temporarily catatonic to fool their families into believing them dead, then revived but kept drugged and mindless. This is basically the same theory of zombies presented decades later by Harvard ethnobotanist Wad Davis in his controversial 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow.

The love-struck planter consults Lugosi to see if he knows some magical way to reorient a woman’s affections. Lugosi, as already noted a pragmatic sort, suggests zombification, since he’s pretty much got that down pat. The planter is appalled. He was hoping for something less drastic. But then again, she’s already blond…

I can sympathize with this fellow’s obsession, because the young lady really is cute. The audience even gets to see her in her underwear as she prepares for her wedding, though this is 1930s underwear we’re talking about, something comparable to a modern-day basketball uniform except for being made of white silk and more modest in cut. (In spite of that, I must admit that I later went back and watched that scene again. Hubba-hubba.)

The actress walks, and even goes up and down stairs, with her arms held out from her sides at a 45 degree angle, her wrists bent to keep her the palms facing downwards. Weird, but graceful in its way.

As for her acting, I believe I recall her using up to three distinct facial expressions, one showing contentment, another fear or worry, and the third the blank emptiness between the galaxies. When the planter told Lugosi he didn’t want her as a zombie, I half expected a surprised Lugosi to ask him how the dickens he could tell the difference.

Despite the tiny budget, the film employs a number of split-screen shots and is in a number of ways stylistically ahead of its time. On the other hand, the acting, logic, and dialog do leave something to be desired. But with all its shortcomings, the film proved popular at the box office when first released, and I wound up rather enjoying it myself.

Here’s the opening:

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