Initial release August 4th 1932 USA
Director Victor Halperin
Produced by Edward Halperin
Screenplay by Garnett Western
Cinematography by Arthur Martinelli
Music by Guy Bevier Williams
Released by United Artists
Run Time 69 minutes
Béla Lugosi ‘Murder’ Legendre
Madge Bellamy Madeleine Short Parker
John Harron Neil Parke
Robert Frazer Charles Beaumont
Clarence Muse Coach Driver
Joseph Cawthorn Dr. Bruner
Brandon Hurst Silver
George Burr Macannan Von Gelder
Frederick Peters Chauvin
Annette Stone Maid
John Printz Ledot
Dan Crimmins Pierre, Witch Doctor
Claude Morgan Zombie
John Fergusson Zombie
Velma Gresham Tall Maid
White Zombie opens with the arrival in Haiti of Madeleine Short Parker (Madge Bellamy) where she reunites with her fiancé Neil Parker (John Harron) with immediate plans to marry. On the way to their lodging, the couple’s coach comes upon a ceremony. Neil is heard to say ‘looks like a burial’ to which Madeleine replies, with a puzzled tone to her voice ‘in the road?’ She looks out of the carriage and asks her native driver what it is. She is told it is a funeral and the deceased is being buried in the road to avoid the body being stolen by body snatchers.They consider it safer, as people will pass there all the time. The coach passes by and we see from his expression, that John is a little concerned as to the introduction his fiancé has been given to the island.
The coach presses on through the night and soon our travellers encounter a stranger by the roadside. The driver stops and asks the stranger for directions to the house of Mr Beaumont. We now see a classical horror film response to this unexpected encounter. Our stranger leans into the coach not saying a word, and gives Madeleine that all too familiar haunting stare with his evil eyes. We get a close up of the eyes to add to the drama. It is Murder Legendre (Béla Lugosi), an evil voodoo master who also manages, whilst all this is going on, to grab Madeleine’s scarf.
Next we witness the arrival of a group of Murder Legendre’s henchmen. Our coach driver is more fearful than ever at this stage and we here him cry out ‘zombies’. Without warning he spurs the horses on and our coach shoots forward pushing Legendre to the side of the road. Still clutching the scarf he stares down at it and then puts it inside his coat and moves off. The zombies follow. The coach we see is now being driven at great speed to the safety of the travellers lodgings and we see it arrive at this destination.
Neil is not happy with the reckless driving and on getting out of the coach confronts our driver, telling him they could have all been killed. The reply startles Neil as the driver says ‘ worse than that, we could have been caught’. When asked, caught by whom, those men you spoke to?, we are told they are not men but dead bodies. Zombies, the living dead. To add to the tension the camera pans to the top of the hillside and we see a row of darkened figures walking in single file along the top. Our driver drives off into the night leaving our couple standing outside the Beaumont residence.
To the howling of wolves we now see a figure approaching. It turns out to be a friendly missionary, Doctor Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) who casually asks them if they have a match so he can light his pipe. He apologises for frightening them. Neil placates him by saying it wasn’t he who frightened them, but what had happened on the road on their way there. He quickly relates the events and is informed by Doctor Bruner that Haiti is a mismatch of superstition and nonsense stories and even after 30 years as a missionary on the island, he still does not know what to believe. We see concern on his face, which is worrying, as it is hard to believe him and a hint that there is more to it than meets the eye.
We see them all go into the house and hear our doctor is expected. He has been invited to marry someone and this is greeted with knowing smiles from our couple.
We now learn that neither of them has known their host Charles Beaumont for very long, Madeleine having met him on the voyage from New York, when he was very kind to her. He volunteered his house for the wedding and even suggested he had a job for the groom. Our missionary’s look shows that this could all be too good to be true? He tells them that he also had only met their host a few times and that he didn’t seem to be the type to play fairy godfather, unless ? We now see the butler eavesdropping on the conversation and when spotted he leaves. The doctor’s advice is that they should leave and have nothing further to do with their host after they are married.
Next we see the butler with our host, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). He says the guests have arrived. At first Beaumont tries to make an excuse that he is out, but finally decides it would be best if he greeted them. The butler agrees, especially as he passes on the information that the doctor suspects his motives. We also hear that Beaumont is expecting word from, as it is put, that other person. The butler shows he is not happy that his employer is associating with this as yet unknown contact. Beaumont dismisses his fears. He is also told that his plans are dangerous. To add to the storyline, we also learn that Beaumont is infatuated with Madeleine. Nothing matters unless he can have her. He does however greet his guests with great enthusiasm and eventually we see them shown to their rooms. At this the point we learn something more about our mystery contact. We here a knock at the door. Neil goes out onto the balcony of his room, where looking down he sees Beaumont get onto a buggy driven by some strange looking figure in a hooded cloak. They drive off.
The next scene shows a sugar cane mill in all its glory ( a great looking set ) It is being operated by our zombie friends. Beaumont is seen arriving and watching it operate. Then we see one of the workers appear to stumble and fall into the machinery in a scene which shows how health and safety should not be practised. Our guest is then led away. It is a great sequence and shows how much thought and detail goes into setting up the plot for theses old classics. The creaking of the machinery all adds to the suspense.
Finally we have our answer. Beaumont has come to meet Murder Legendre. Legendre says he is delighted to see him again and offers his hand. It is declined which indicates that the meeting has nothing to do with friendships. He apologises for the delay in contacting Beaumont and tells him he has been away recruiting men for his mill, men that Beaumont could also easily make use of on his plantations. Beaumont refuses, saying that it is not what he came there for. The conversation turns to Madeleine. Legrandre tells him he had seen her on the road that night and produces the scarf he has stolen. The view is also that Neil, her intended, is a problem and the suggestion is that if Madeleine disappeared for a month she would soon forget her lover. Legendre tells Beaumont that having looked into her eyes it is obvious she only has eyes for one person and that is not him. Not wanting to give up, Beaumont says there has to be a way. We hear Legrande, with all the lack of sincerity you could imagine, utter ‘ there is a way’. Beaumont is obviously desperate to get what he wants and says that Legrandre can have anything if he helps.
We see them both look at a zombie and Legrandre whispers into Beaumont’s ear. Beaumont shouts ‘ no, not that’. Legrandre states that the only way to help Charles is to transform Madeleine into a zombie with a potion. He is reluctant, but on trying to give the potion back, Murder gives a hypnotic stare ‘ keep it, you may change your mind’ and then says ‘ send me word when you use it’. Classic Lugosi mind games. A confused Beaumont goes to leave saying he will find another way. We hear the reply ‘ there is no other way’. The potion we learn, can been administered in either a glass of wine or using a flower.
The wedding day arrives and we see Madeleine preparing for her big day, complete with native drums! What else. Her maid tells her they are driving away evil spirits, but our bride insists on having the window closed to shut out their sound. Next to the sound of ‘here comes the bride’ Beaumont comes down the stairs with our bride. Even at this late stage, we see he is never going to give up and tries to persuade her to change her mind and go away with him. He will make her the envy of every woman. Her only response is to admit that he has been good to her, but she does not want him to say anymore, as it will spoil that relationship. He offers one last gift, a flower. She smells its fragrance.
In desperation, Beaumont has used his potion. The wedding ceremony continues. Outside we see Legrandre taking a candle from one of the lamps, remove the scarf he stole, and wrap it around it. He then carves the candle into an effigy of Madeleine.
We now move on as to what can only be termed as the wedding reception, where we see Neil toast his bride and pass the wine glass across the table to her. At first she sees good things in the glass, but then her expression changes. We see the evil face of Legrandre in her wine glass and she exclaims she now sees Death. The potion is working. Outside our evil villain is holding the wax effigy in the flame of the other lamp. We see evil eyes and then Madeleine’s face. Her eyes close and she dies.
The funeral takes place and we she her body entombed. Neil, in grief, goes on a drinking spree and during this is confronted with an apparition of Madeleine, who promptly disappears as he reaches out for her.
Our next scene see’s Legrandre and Charles meet up at night and he introduce Charles to his zombie servants. They have had their souls taken. They all enter Madeleine’s tomb and remove her coffin, opening it for us to find a very serene bride inside. Meanwhile Neil is seen roving aimlessly trying to find his lost love and calling for Madeleine in the process. Our grave robbers hear his calls and quickly take the coffin away. Legrandre and Beaumont are leading with our zombies carrying the coffin on their shoulders behind. The stumbling Neil now arrives to find the tomb open and empty. We hear him scream in despair.
Our story advances and Neil we see talking with our local missionary Dr. Bruner. Our doctor’s view is it is either the work of body snatchers or she was not dead in the first place. He explains the old superstitions. They explore the possibilities of people being buried alive and then the implications it has. There is a need to separate fact from fiction and the possibility to induce a lethargic coma. They decide to join forces to find out the truth. Has she been turned into a zombie?
We move to a retreat on top of cliffs overlooking the sea. We see a zombie like Madeleine playing a piano. Beaumont looks on. He is getting impatient, as his love is just a lifeless being with no emotion other than to play the piano with feeling. He can get no response from her whatsoever, even when he places a necklace around her. She has no soul and he begs forgiveness for what he has done. He demands Legrande change her back to her living state. He would prefer to see her with a hateful stare, rather than just loving emptiness.
The story now takes another twist. Can we trust Legrande? Our two villains drink a glass of wine to the future, but we now see that Beaumont’s glass has been drugged. Legrande announces that he has other plans for our heroine. We see Beaumont attempt to call on his butler to help him , but the cold eye stare from Legrande makes our butler freeze in mid action. On cue, the zombies enter and our butler is carried up the stairs and away. We hear a piercing scream and see him thrown into a raging stream and death.
In the meantime, Neil and our missionary doctor have been travelling to the castle on horseback to attempt a rescue. They meet up with an old witch doctor friend of Bruner’s called Pierre. He warns our duo to turn back. We see vultures, present as the story goes, to oversee the house of the living dead. Whilst they camp, and the doctor goes off to scout around the castle, Neil has another vision of Madeleine. We see him leave the camp and approach the castle, almost falling into the raging stream that took the butler. Beaumont meanwhile discovers he has also been tainted by a voodoo potion and is transforming into a zombie himself. Legrandre looks on and asks him if he can still hear him . Beaumont is no longer able to speak. He has it explained to him that he is the first man who knows what is happening to him. None of the others did.
Meanwhile our hero Neil has reached the great hall where he finds the two villains. Exhausted he collapses onto a settee at the top of a set of stairs. Legrandre climbs the stairs and looks down on him. We see that evil look and wry smile again and he clasps his hands. The camera moves slowly into a close up of his face and then the evil eyes. He has conjured up a spell and we see Madeleine slowly rise up from her bed and walk towards the great hall. She approaches Beaumont and takes his dagger and moves towards Neil with a view to killing him. We see her standing over him and then once again Legrandre clench his hands. Her arm is raised ready to strike, but to a haunting tune and much drama, a mysterious arm restrains her and causes her to drop the dagger. She runs out of the hall. Neil then awakes and follows her and we see them approach the cliff edge. She looks down upon the rocks and water below. She looks very confused and ready to jump. Neil rushes forward and grabs her and saves her from jumping.
Legrande now comes down the stairs, where he stops and stares at them. Again the clenched hands, the look and we see some zombies, also on the stairway intent on attacking our couple. Neil confronts him, ‘who are you ‘ he asks. Before he gets an answer the zombies attack Neil , who draws a gun and fires. He is standing right on the edge of a parapet but the shots have no visible effect. Enter our missionary who proceeds to attack Legrande, striking him at the base of his neck. Legrande collapses. Neil meanwhile manages to avoid the approaching zombies, only for them to show no sense of what is happening and just continue on and walk over the parapet. We see them disappear over one by one. Bizarre.
Madeleine is still looking confused, but suddenly we see a glimmer of recognition in her eyes and the hint of a smile. Legrande now wakes up and attempts to run up the stairs to escape. Our two heroes give chase only for him to turn and throw some form of gas capsule, which causes them to cough and gag. Again, the clenched hand in action and an eagle nesting above.
He is however now running out of options, as from behind, Beaumont grabs our villain and throws him over the parapet. He tumbles down and as we switch to the sea below, rocks and all., he is seen crashing into the water and being washed away. Still under the influence? Beaumont jumps himself and follows him into the raging torrents.
The spell is broken and our two lovers are reunited. In one final moment, humour creeps in as our missionary, in apologetic mode says ‘ excuse me please, have you got a match’
Here again we have a great horror movie produced on a minimal budget, but produced using great flair and imagination, in this case Halperin Productions. Some of the visuals , namely the opening scene of the burial on the road and the sugar mill worked by zombies, leaves a lasting impression and is the sure sign of a successful horror film. Add to this the hillside graveyard, the villain’s towering castle and the moody music and you have something to admire for its day. You have to have patience when looking at movies like this one. No violent action or senseless bloodshed. All is implied and you have to use your imagination. The story is intriguing and in many ways sad, but is very well told. The ending is very satisfying.
The highlight of this film has to Victor Halperin’s directing and the cinematography by Arthur Martinelli as its shows a lot of influence from the German expressionist movement of the 1920’s and gives the movie an ominous surreal atmosphere. It was released at the same time as the Universal horror films were making huge waves. Of course, Bela Lugosi, was the star of Universal’s Dracula, but in retrospect this can be considered as one of his finest performances in one of the best films he was ever involved with. He did far worse in his later career than he did by accepting a role is this little gem.
From memory this film did reasonably well at the box office in 1932 and as a result of this success, inspired other Zombie movies. Were these any better? Some yes, Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, but most were certainly not. Another tribute to this little offering. Look at how Lugosi turns his victims into zombies. Making an image, a detailed carving of the victim in candlewax.
White Zombie is a classic and deservedly so. The film has much more polish than some of the horror films of the period, which often had a stagey quality to them. It’s not a perfect film, but I can’t imagine any fan of classic horror films not being entertained.
The sign of a good horror movie is one that gets your attention from the very start. This one is still scary, frightening and chilling even today. But along the way, there’s a cool effect. How Lugosi turns his victims into zombies by making an image, a detailed carving of the victim and the movement of the hands to conjure up the spell. Definitely eerie. The stare and the interlocked hands, great.
Arrival at the burial in the road
The stranger by the roadside
The Chauffeur for the trip to the Mill
Day to day workings at the Mill
The Wedding goes ahead
Charles Beaumont is introduced to Legendre’s henchmen
Beaumont realises the Madeleine he loved has been lost
Neil Parker to the rescue
Our hero is saved from certain death
Beaumont gets his revenge
The happy ending we have come to expect