White Zombie (1932) Review

The 1930s were a landmark time for horror movies. Everyone remembers such greats as Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein, and Wolf-Man, even if you haven’t seen the movies first hand. Not as many people remember that in the same time frame the first zombie film was released, White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi. I once read an article that credited and earlier silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as the first zombie film. In that movie, made by German expressionists in the 20’s, Dr. Caligari controlled the will of a somnambulist, a man who slept all day every day until he was commanded to kill by his master. For my money, White Zombie is the first true zombie film. At any rate, it’s the first film to refer to the creatures as zombies and it’s the first film to deal with Haitian voodoo-ism as the cause of the cursed state.

Bela Lugosi is as magnetic as ever in his role as the villain in White Zombie. Just a year earlier Lugosi had starred in Dracula as the title role and created a movie icon for the ages. His role in White Zombie was no less mysterious or charismatic, but this one failed to gain the following that his previous success had. Not that it wasn’t popular. The company that gained control of the rights to the movie after its initial run continued to re-release the movie in commemorative editions for years to come, all the way up until 1972. However, it still doesn’t carry the same mainstream following that the others have, even though it spawned a genre that has a longer, fuller legacy than any of the other classics, aside from Dracula of course. This film did manage to impress a young Rob Zombie, however, who named his band after the film.

The main aspect of White Zombie that differs from the modern day incarnations of the mindless cursed creatures is that the zombies in this movie aren’t dead. They’re simply put into a trance induced by Lugosi’s character Legendre. He uses his powers to enslave the local Haitian populace to work in his sugar mill and makes them work without rest. In this sense the movie lacks the overt racism of its other early counterparts that deal with Haitian voodoo practices. This movie shows the villain, a white plantation owner, exploiting the native black community. In short, it shows the truth of what was happening in Haiti, rather than tap-dancing around it, like in I Walked With A Zombie in 1943. The movie is moody and stylish as hell too, just as good as any of the other highly revered classics. If it wasn’t for this movie, I wouldn’t be writing zombie movie reviews today. There’d be nothing to write about.