Bela Lugosi followed up his classic 1931 portrayal of Count Dracula with the first feature length zombie movie in 1932. This film was actually inspired by Kenneth Webb's Broadway play, "Zombie", and was filmed in a span of eleven days.
Madeleine and Neil have been invited to be married at Charles Beaumont's plantation in Haiti, despite only having just recently met him. Neil soon discovers that things aren't what they seem when Madeleine dies shortly after the wedding... only to be raised again as a zombie...
Many of the cast members were silent film stars whose fame started to die out with the advent of talking films. Joseph Cawthorn, who played Dr. Brunner was mostly known at the time for his comic relief roles prior to "White Zombie". Madge Bellamy, the lovely actress that portrays Madeleine used to recall that working with Bela Lugosi was pleasant, and that he would often kiss her hand in the mornings on set, while others- such as the Assistant Cameraman Enzo Martinelli claimed that he "wasn't really a friendly type".
While most of the sets were re-used from previous movies, they were wonderfully redressed, and looked great in this film. Some of the sets you'll see from other famous films included:
- The great hall seen in "Dracula" (1931);
- The pillars and the hanging balcony from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923);
- The dark, gloomy corridors from "Frankenstein" (1931); and
- The chairs from "The Cat and the Canary" (1927)
And his make-up! Jack Pierce, who did Lugosi's make-up is also famous for his work on "Frankenstein", "The Wolf Man" (1941), and "The Mummy" (1931) as well. His thin mustache, and the double tufted beard looked sinister and marvelous on Lugosi. The only problem I had was the eyebrows... they were a little distracting.
One complaint cast against this film over the years is the quality of the acting. I won't lie, it's not the greatest acting in the world, but fans will be pleased with Lugosi's acting. One needs to remember that most of the stars were used to silent films, and based their style on that. This is really evident in Madge Bellamy's performance, as well as John Harron's (he plays Neil). Robert Frazer (as Charles Beaumont), and Joseph Cawthorn are a bit more natural in their acting. The show of course, though is stolen by Bela Lugosi's portrayal of "Murder" Legendre- the voodoo master.
I'm not too sure what to say about the portrayal of the voodoo created zombies, since they aren't what we would expect them to be. I was a little disappointed by the rather stiff movements of the poor zombies. They looked like they were almost trying to march. Personally, I would've liked to have seen them shambling along- not so much like the George Romero zombies from "Night of the Living Dead", but more like sleepwalkers in a trance.
The storyline is pretty basic, and told in a simple fashion, but is still interesting enough to give Bela Lugosi material to hand in a great performance. Honestly, the only real flaw is the acting- which is understandable when you consider that films were still in a bit of a transition from silent to talking films.
"White Zombie" is definately a film for those that are interested in seeing the evolution of the zombie film from voodoo zombies to the dead rising to nom on the living zombies. If you're a Bela Lugosi fan, you'll truly enjoy his acting in this film as well. Since this is one of those under-rated films, and I still quite enjoyed it, I'm giving this a spot in "The Bad"...