‘They are not men, madame. They are dead bodies…’
Cineastes often credit George Romero with ‘inventing’ the zombie, and if we talking about a shuffling army of the undead obsessed with eating brains then Romero did originate the concept. However, historically the word ‘zombi’ was first recorded in 1819 and it was associated with Haitian folklore decades before Romero and his ilk co-opted it for their own grisly means. White Zombie is the oldest surviving film about the undead (there were others produced during the silent era but they have fallen victim to the sands of time – at least 80% of films from the silent era are lost forever) and it is quite different to what we have come to expect in the era of The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later…
Madeline (Madge Bellamy) is due to be married to her fiance Neil (John Harron) but wealthy landowner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) has other ideas. Rather than attempt to woo Madeline using conventional methods, Charles takes the drastic step of employing a local witch doctor with the spectacular moniker Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi). Unsurprisingly, Murder Legendre is not to be trusted and instead of coming up with some kind of elaborate love potion, he instead turns Madeline into a zombie.
Not just an important landmark in horror film history, White Zombie features some suitably creepy set design, all candlelight and gothic castles, and Lugosi is always reliable playing a movie monster. The rest of the acting stays just the right side of hysterical and the haunting vocal score nods to the film’s Haitian roots. There isn’t much here to entice non-horror fans, but for the initiated White Zombie is an interesting starting point for a subgenre that would become dominant following the intervention of the aforementioned George Romero.
White Zombie is not an essential film, but at only 67 minutes it is worth checking out as a curio.