Friday, November 2, 2012

White Zombie (Halperin Bros./United Artists, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran out of time writing yesterday’s journal and didn’t mention the third film Charles and I watched on our Hallowe’en movies marathon: White Zombie, the quirky and fascinating film made by the Halperin brothers (producer Edward and director Victor) in 1932. They picked a grim story by Garnett Weston in which white voodoo master “Murder” Legendre (Bela Lugosi) runs a sugar mill on Haiti with a crew of zombie workers, all of them former enemies of his he has tricked into zombie-dom with a secret drug he can administer either in a glass of wine or on a flower (the victim sniffs the flower and the drug puts him or her under), after which the zombie-to-be is officially buried (the drug creates a convincing simulacrum of death), then exhumed and turned into a mindless slave for some kind of menial work. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the zombies are turning the wheel on which huge, ultra-sharp blades for cutting the sugar cane are mounted — and one falls into the apparatus, and the zombies neither react nor make a sound while the blades are cutting the victim to shreds. The plot centers around young couple Neil Parker (former D. W. Griffith leading man John Harron) and his fiancée, Madeleine Short (former MGM silent sort-of star Madge Bellamy), who met on a ship taking them to Haiti for a vacation. They fell in love with each other and agreed to marry on the island, but Madeleine also attracted the attention of Haitian planter Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). Beaumont offers to put the lovebirds up and even host their wedding, but he’s secretly scheming to get Madeleine away from Neil so he can have her himself. Madeleine also attracts the attention of “Murder” Legendre, who encounters her en route from the docks to the Beaumont home and, as her carriage is stopped at a crossroads — a body is being buried there and she’s told that it’s so that it cannot later be exhumed and turned into a zombie — Legendre steals her scarf. Later Beaumont, who loathes Legendre but also knows that he needs him, cuts a deal with the zombie master to turn Madeleine into a zombie so she’ll forget about Neil and stay with him.

The treatment works but Beaumont decides he doesn’t want a zombie girlfriend, and he pleads with Legendre to restore her to full life. Instead Legendre kidnaps Beaumont and turns him into a zombie — or at least starts the process, explaining in Lugosi’s most cultured tones (it’s refreshing to watch this movie and note that while Lugosi has very few lines — remember that he learned his parts phonetically and cheap producers like the Halperins didn’t want to wait around for him to learn a long part that way — he speaks the ones he does have in a cultured, almost delicate way, a far cry from the snarling overacting he resorted to later under less creative, less conscientious directors than Victor Halperin) that he’s the first person he’s ever put through the transformation who was actually aware of what was going on. Neil and his local confidant, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn, basically playing the Edward Van Sloan role from Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy), search for Legendre’s castle (a marvelous glass-painted manse matted into scenes with real water — off the Malibu coast, no doubt). Bruner enters first, warning Neil that he’s tired and therefore in no shape to confront the zombie master, but Neil sneaks in anyway and, with a series of malevolent hypnotic stares and a gesture of clenching his hands together, Legendre orders Madeleine to take a knife (it looked like a letter-opener to me) and stab Neil with it. But she has enough of her humanity — and her love for Neil — left not to do it, and while she hesitates Bruner is able to grab her hand and get her to drop the weapon. Neil, knocked out in the struggle, comes to and tries to shoot Legendre’s zombies when Legendre has them attack him — bullets don’t have any effect on them (there’s a marvelous shot in which Neil shoots one in the chest and the bullet leaves a hole but does not cause the zombie any harm), but when Bruner sneaks up behind Legendre and knocks him out, the zombies, without his guidance, march themselves off the cliff and into the sea below. Later Legendre tries to flee but is cornered by Beaumont, who’s come to enough to attack him, and in the ensuing struggle both men fall to their deaths in the sea below and Neil and Madeleine are together again, she restored to full humanity by Legendre’s death.

Apparently the Halperins originally shot this via a distribution deal with one of the short-lived Depression-era indies, but when the company went out of business after the film was finished but before it could be released, the Halperins were able to sell it to a semi-major company, United Artists, and get it seen more widely than it would have with only independent distribution. They also got a one-film deal with Paramount, where they made Supernatural, a great movie in which Carole Lombard plays a socialite whose body is taken over by the soul of a convicted and executed murderess (and, Universal Home Video, where is that one on DVD?). White Zombie is one of two remarkable films Lugosi made in 1932 (the year after the release of Dracula) that quite frankly stand at the summit of his career (the other is Murders in the Rue Morgue); though Garnett Weston was obviously ripping off the Dracula iconography (notably in Lugosi’s caped appearance, his nocturnal habits, the use of a coach driver — played by African-American actor Clarence Muse — to bring him and the leads together, and above all in his attempt to win a woman through supernatural means even though she’d have nothing to do with him if her will to resist was intact), the film is far superior to the Dracula movie, mainly due to Halperin’s skill as a visual director. He and his brother rented space at both Universal and RKO to shoot White Zombie, and for that they gained access to spectacular sets they couldn’t have afforded to build on their budget — but it’s Halperin’s use of them that really makes this film amazing: it’s full of oblique angles, picturesque gratings and moldings through which the characters are visualized, split screens and wipes, including an odd double-angled effect that makes it seem as if a stage curtain is opening.

White Zombie has virtually no dialogue, and while that may be simply the Halperins and Weston adjusting to the limits of their cast (Lugosi learned his lines phonetically and the other cast members weren’t used to acting with their voices at all — the film’s credibility suffers because Madge Bellamy is so wooden it’s hard to tell when she’s supposed to be a zombie and when she’s supposed to be normal), much of it is clearly artistic choice, Halperin going for what Sergei Eisenstein had called “the sound film” rather than the talkie — a movie in which music and sound effects would be used to amplify the emotion without drowning the screen in dialogue. White Zombie is a refreshing reminder of the days when the term “zombie” in a movie meant a story about ordinary humans drugged into a simulacrum of death and then forced to work as slaves, rather than what it’s come to mean since Night of the Living Dead: corpses revivified by atomic radiation out to consume the brains of living people as their source of food. It’s also an amazing film, dragged down by its crudities (like the terrible stock music Halperin was stuck with — if his budget had been able to extend to a real composer, or if he’d used classical-music records instead of the dreary stock cues he did, this could have been an even more haunting and atmospheric film than it is; as it is, the best cue is a wordless a cappella chorus singing the melody to the spiritual “Listen to the Lambs,” Halperin doing well what the makers of the 1934 film Black Moon did poorly and unsubtly: contrasting the Christian faith of the spirituals to the voodoo basis of the zombie ritual) but exalted by Halperin’s visual imagination and near-unerring sense of atmosphere. If on balance I like Rue Morgue better it’s more because of the major-studio infrastructure and the even more extreme stylization (and Lugosi’s part is longer and gives him more of a chance to act with his voice), but White Zombie is one of Lugosi’s greatest films and one of the few times he was given a vehicle worthy of him.