Home Video Hovel- White Zombie, by Tyler Smith
Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, recently released on Blu Ray from Kino, is a good movie, but unfortunately not a great one. Viewed on its own, it might have been considered a classic. Sadly, I found myself comparing it to Tod Browning’s Dracula and Erie Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls. That all three movies star Bela Lugosi and feature ghoulish, disturbing creatures only invites further comparison.
White Zombie is about a young couple traveling to Haiti to get married. They are to be the guests of the groom’s employer, who harbors feelings for the bride. And overseeing it all is a mysterious man delightfully named “Murder” Legendre, who uses voodoo magic to entrance the girl and make her his slave.
I think one of the primary frustrations about the film is its lack of rules. Horror movies- specifically supernatural ones- often function best when the rules are well established. For instance, we know that vampires can’t go out in the sunlight, hate garlic, can’t see themselves in mirrors, and can only be killed by driving a stake through their heart. Werewolves only change during a full moon, lose any and all humanity, and can be killed with a silver bullet. These basic guidelines give us a simple base of knowledge from which the plot and characters can deviate. That is not to say that every film requires it, but movies like White Zombie, in which anything can and does happen without warning, desperately require a sort of story anchor which helps us to know what the characters should do and how.
As it is, the film seems to sort of drift, using the general terms of “magic,” “voodoo,” and “superstition” to give the evil characters free reign to do pretty much anything the writers think up. And while that may make the villains more unpredictable, it eventually just became confusing and frustrating. By the end of the film, I found myself just shrugging and going along with it. And perhaps this was the point, but I’m sure the director didn’t intend for my total lack of investment in the characters or story.
That is not to say that White Zombie has no redeeming qualities. The film is not without its charms. Lugosi’s comfort with the English language has dramatically increased since Dracula and it shows in the casual nature of his performance. His Legendre is surprisingly nonchalant about his evil deeds, which makes him a much more frightening character than we often see in classic horror (save for Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein).
The general tone and atmosphere of the film is also quite memorable. From the dead eyes of the entranced zombies to the screaming vultures, there are plenty of disturbing elements to the film that certainly explain why it has remained in the memories of horror aficianados over the decades.
So, between a solid performance by Lugosi and the unsettling visual quality (which has a beautiful, dreamy look on Blu Ray), White Zombie is a film that I would marginally recommend. That is, of course, only after you’ve watched Dracula and Island of Lost Souls.