White Zombie (1932) – Victor Halperin

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To wrap up my Zombie-themed week (a little late), I thought I’d throw it way back. I mean way back. Victor Halperin’s 1932 White Zombie, was the very first zombie movie ever made (though there’s some debate about this). This was long before the days of flesh eating, contagious, don’t-get-bitten zombies. The first film zombies were based on a voodoo curse. The word zombie actually comes from Africa by way of Haiti, which is where this movie takes place. The zombies in the movie were actually brought back to life as slaves using voodoo magic. There might be some social commentary or maybe some subtle racism here with the majority of the zombies being black native Haitians (and slaves) except the white girl around whom the story revolves.

The story is actually pretty good and interesting, albeit slow, but I think this movie is just a victim of its time. Or rather, it’s a victim of the desensitized nature of the modern audience. I’m sure that when White Zombie first came out, it was shocking and terrifying. But these days, you can see scarier things on Sesame Street. To say that the movie is tame by modern standards is putting it lightly. There are some moments of suspense and some interesting and creative camera work that keep the audience awake, but otherwise everything is just very slow-paced. I think that to the 1930’s audience, seeing reanimated corpses on the screen was horrifying, but the scares just don’t stand the test of time.

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So as I mentioned, the movie takes place Haiti. It’s basically a movie about a bunch of punk-ass white people running around the ghetto messing with voodoo magic that they have no business messing with. We open with a young couple taking a carriage ride through a creepy Haitian graveyard to a fancy house where they are to be married. On the trip, they run into Bella Lugosi (famous for starring in Dracula and tons of other horror movies) who plays a polite old mustachioed gentleman witch-doctor type dude who brings corpses back to life to work as servants in his house and slaves in his mill. Oh yeah, HIS FUCKING NAME IS “MURDER” and he has a swarm of zombie slaves who do his bidding. That should be a serious red flag. Also who were his parents? When you name your kid Murder, you’re pretty much limiting his career choices to voodoo master or, or maybe creepy janitor.

Anyway one of the local bachelors, who happens to be a huge dildo, gets one look at the bride-to-be and decided he’s in love with her. So he meets with Murder and gets a little vial of magic voodoo liquid that’s supposed to make help him get the girl. He slips it to her right before the wedding and she ends up dropping dead at the reception. So a few days later loverboy and Murder and a crew of zombies dig up the wife’s body and take it back to his awesome castle built into the side of a huge cliff. So Murder brings homegirl back to life but of course she’s a zombie so she can’t really talk or do anything-she just sits there oh and at one point she plays the piano. The guy feels all sad because the girl he loves is actually just a walking corpse with no soul and he even makes some subtle comments about not wanting to fuck her because of her dead eyes. Meanwhile, the real husband figures out that something’s going on and he recruits a friend to go up to Murder’s house and get his wife back.

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The final scenes were actually pretty intense and suspenseful. Because there were no real special effects to speak of, the filmmakers had to use setting and fancy camerawork and other techniques like dramatic irony to build the horror and tension. Dramatic irony is when the audience is aware of something but the characters are not. In this case, it’s the  characters think they’ve taken care of everything and they’re hugging and making out but then we see a bunch of zombies slowly and silently coming down the stairs. The closer they get the more exciting it gets. Anyway, the ending is ok but it was a little too happy for my taste. Whatever, back then I guess they had to tie things up in a nice little bow and make sure all the loose ends were taken care of.

So how does the original zombie movie hold up to today’s horror movies?

  1. Is it scary: 3- Like I said, it was probably scary when it first came out, but by today’s standards, it could be prescribed as a treatment for insomnia.
  2. Originality: 10- I mean, it was the first one, right?
  3. Blood: 1- A bunch of people die but there’s really hardly any blood. I guess the zombie make-up could be construed as blood, but these guys shouldn’t be confused with a modern-looking zombie.
  4. Believability: 5: I can’t in good conscience give a higher rating that that when the whole plot is predicated on someone trusting a man named Murder to help him out with his girl problems.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 8- This is where the movie really shines. In the absence of modern special effects, they had to make everything look creepy and they had to shoot everything in a creative way. There are lots of silhouettes and long creepy camera shots.

Final Score: 27/50

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