Monday, October 11, 2010

Movie Monday - White Zombie

So let's get the Halloween horrors rolling. In 1932, a movie came out starring Bela Lugosi and a bunch of other people Vampira had never heard of that eventually inspired these guys to put a band together...

And also inspired the villain in the comic book, The Prowler.

The movie was, of course, "White Zombie," and the reaction to it has been as weird and varied as the movie itself. It apparently made a lot of money on its initial release, but the critics of the time hated it. Nowadays, though, it's considered one of the classics of early horror films. One thing immediately sets it apart from the other classic horror films of the 30's, though--it's an independent production, so the opening lacks the iconic Universal globe or the RKO radio tower that my youthful self found synonymous with 30's horror movies.

Also, the opening is fairly creepy, in that it lacks the standard opening theme music, and instead features bare drums and howling vocals over the chilling image of a group of Haitians burying a body in a dirt road. Soon enough, along comes a carriage bearing young lovers Neil and Madeleine, on their way to be married. But they are being watched by evil eyes...

And right in these opening moments, we see everything that's right and wrong with the movie. The acting and glacially slow timing of the opening, where the young lovers question their carriage driver about the burial, are amateurish (understandable given the relatively recent introduction of sound to movies--stars Madge Bellamy and Robert Frazer were actors who had done most of their work in silents). In fact, Madge Bellamy, with her heavy mascara, kewpie doll lips and flapper bob, seems to have stepped right out of a silent film and stumbled into a talkie by accident.

On the other hand, the tracking shot that superimposes the eyes on the figure of their owner, Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi), is an inspired bit of creep that hearkens back to the best horror films of the silent era.

Murder is taken with Madeleine and snatches away her scarf as the carriage driver is fleeing from a group of zombies coming down a hill. I thought this guy was pretty funny.

He is described in a later scene as the witch doctor who taught Murder the secrets of zombie-making, but those Sorcerer's Apprentice robes are a little silly.

Soon the coach arrives at the mansion of Charles Beaumont, where the couple are to be married. A man emerges from the woods, pulls out a pipe and asks, "Have you got a match?" He is kindly Doctor Bruner, a missionary who is here to perform the ceremony. As the three wait for Beaumont to put in an appearance, Madeleine explains how she got to know Beaumont on the boat over from New York, how Beaumont insisted they get married at his mansion in the country, and how he had offered to send Neil to America as his agent for a substantial increase in pay. Hmmm, offering to put the pretty young bride up in your house while you send her husband out of the country? Nothing suspicious about that.

So before the wedding, Beaumont sneaks out of the house and climbs into a carriage that's waiting for him--a carriage driven by a zombie. He is taken to a mill that processes sugar cane, also completely staffed by zombies. One unfortunate individual falls into the threshing blades. He does not utter a sound, nor do the zombies turning the big drive wheel falter in their slow pace. Seriously creepy.

Murder Legendre appears, and we learn the reason for the visit. Beaumont wants Legendre to kidnap Madeleine for him; he feels that if he can get to know her for a while without her husband around, say a month, then she'll fall in love with him. Legendre tells him in no uncertain terms what a stupid plan that is and proposes a counter-plan. We don't hear the words he whispers in Beaumont's ear, but we know what he proposes. He gives Beaumont a vial of zombie-making powder. A tiny amount is all that's needed, sprinkled on a flower, perhaps, or in a glass of wine. Beaumont takes the powder with him, but swears he will never use it.

After a tiny bit of Depression-era fan service in which we learn that Britney Spears did not invent the bare-midriff look...

We find out that Beaumont's resolve lasted just long enough to get back home, because as he's walking Madeleine to the room where she will be married, he offers her a flower. She holds it to her nose and inhales deeply, then goes in to the ceremony.

Meanwhile, Murder Legendre is outside, carving a voodoo doll from a candle wrapped in her scarf.And I've gotta say, this is one of the better parts I've seen Lugosi play. Aside from the wacky facial hair--the pointed eyebrows and Ra's al Ghul whiskers--he's got a wicked sense of humor. He doesn't just do evil things, he really seems to enjoy them.

Madeleine dies in Neil's arms. Neil is heartbroken. After she is interred, he goes out drinking, where he hallucinates her face in his table, and in the shadows on the wall, another visually creative moment.

Meanwhile, Murder and Beaumont steal Madeleine's body from her crypt; zombies carry it back to Legendre's castle on a seaside cliff (depicted in a wonderfully moody matte painting).

Neil discovers Madeleine's body is missing and goes to Doctor Bruner, who speculates that she was never dead, but merely drugged to create the appearance of death. He suggests they start a search to learn the truth. The scene is odd, because on the one hand, it seems carefully planned, opening with a camera move from the shadow of Neil's back as he leans on Bruner's desk, and ending with the actors in the same positions as the camera performs the same move only in reverse. On the other hand, the actors obviously have trouble with their lines during the long takes, and even seem to be ad-libbing some of it.

Next we discover that Beaumont is miserable. Zombie love is not as romantic as he'd hoped. Madeleine just lays there, staring off into space. Okay, she's actually playing the piano, but you know the same thing happened in the bedroom, and it was only fun the first time. Anyway, Beaumont asks Legendre to change her back, but Legendre refuses. He wants Madeleine for himself and slips Beaumont a little zombie-powder mickey (he also mentions that he's taken a shine to Beaumont as well, although I don't think he meant it as gay as it sounds).

Bruner and Neil approach Legendre's castle, but Neil is suffering from exhaustion or something, a kind of lovelorn lassitude (blue balls maybe?) that leaves him unable to continue. Bruner tells him to rest while he goes off to scout the castle by himself. But moments later, Neil forges some kind of psychic bond with Madeleine (in a really impressive split-screen effect) and takes off for the castle himself.

Which leads to the climactic confrontation. Legendre is cruelly taunting Beaumont (who has not been completely zombified, but seems to be suffering from an advanced neurological disease) when Neil staggers into the room. It's hard to tell if Legendre psychically attacks Neil or Neil just conveniently passes out, but Legendre summons Madeleine to finish him off. Because having your enemy helpless at your feet is good, but having your enemy killed by his own mind-controlled wife who still loves him deeply is priceless.

But Bruner grabs her hand before she can strike, and she drops the knife. She suddenly seems to break through the control and flees outside, where she appears to consider throwing herself off the cliff onto the rocks below (where we discover that Neil dodged a bullet by missing his wedding night--she seems to be hiding some sort of tentacles under her dress).

But Neil stops her from jumping. Legendre sends his zombies to kill Neil, but Bruner bashes Legendre over the head, and uncontrolled, the zombies stumble off the cliff.

Legendre recovers and breaks a vial of zombie powder at the feet of the two intruders and seems about to dominate them and add them to his zombie pool, when Beaumont staggers up behind him and pushes him off the cliff before stumbling and falling to his own death as well. All ends well as Neil embraces Madeleine and Bruner asks, "Have you got a match?"

So, the good: tons of atmosphere, creative camera and optical work, a good script that not only includes some seriously creepy stuff, but also works in believable, complex and adult character motivations. There's also some neat structural stuff in there, like Bruner delivering the same line as both the first and last things he says. In a lot of ways, this movie was ahead of its time, not the least of which is that it was apparently the first feature-length zombie movie.

Then again, it's also a throwback to an earlier era in the sloppy execution of some of its great ideas and the poor performances and sound quality. It's not a great film, but it is a fascinating one.

The movie is in the public domain and can be watched for free at the Internet Archive, here. Oh, and there's a sequel, sort of. Next week...

No comments: