THE UNLOVED DEAD: VOODOO ZOMBIES, Part One: White Zombie - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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In the first of five features, Gordon Hopkins revisits the unloved voodoo zombie genre. Today he takes a look back at 1932's White Zombie.
Let us speak of the zombie; the shambling, moaning, gut-chomping, brain-slurping, walking corpse that has saturated our modern culture in the manner of The Beatles, Batman and Mickey Mouse.

The zombie, as it understood today, stems directly from George A. Romero's independent, black and white 1968 flick, Night of the Living Dead. Every modern zombie from The Walking Dead, Z-Nation and Shaun of the Dead are all direct descendants of Romero's cannibalistic creations. That is where the lineage begins.

Tales of the dead climbing up out of their graves to cause general consternation among the living have been around as long as living have been telling stories, but those tales do not inform the Romero zombie. The true ancestors of Romero's zombies are not zombies at all, but vampires. Night of the Living Dead was clearly inspired by (or an homage to, or ripped off from, however you want to phrase it) an Italian-American co-production from 1964 starring Vincent Price called The Last Man on Earth, which in turn was based on Richard Matheson's seminal novel, I am Legend.
Zombies existed before George A. Romero, of course, but they were very different creatures. They weren't created by a mysterious chemical or plague or radiation.

Those monsters of yore were created by the supernatural, by magic.

By Voodoo!

Despite the ever-rising stock of zombies in today's motion picture industry, there seems to have been no attempt at resurrecting (so to speak) the Voodoo zombie. Why is that?

Well, there are a couple of different reasons, which become apparent if you sit down and watch some old Voodoo zombie movies. So let's pick a few examples of this forgotten sub-sub-genre and see if we can figure it out, shall we?
Bela Lugosi had reached his career zenith in 1931 with Dracula. Sadly, it was all downhill from there. Lugosi had been offered another iconic horror role, that of the monster in Frankenstein. After Dracula, Lugosi felt he could be a bit choosier, so he turned it down. In the stage play on which the film was based, the monster had no lines.

“I was a star in my country,” Lugosi reportedly said. “I won't be a scarecrow in this one!”

We all know what happened next. Frankenstein made Boris Karloff's career. Having clearly missed an opportunity, it is said Lugosi never refused another role. This may be apocryphal, or at least somewhat overstated, but having seen some of the movies Lugosi starred in later in his career, I believe it.

It also meant he ended up starring in some unlikely gems that he might have skipped, had he been a bit more discerning. One of those gems is White Zombie, widely regarded as the first feature-length zombie film. After shooting Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue for Universal, Lugosi accepted a surprisingly low salary (somewhere between $500 and $5,000, depending on who you believe) for a low-budget movie with an unproven producer and director.
White Zombie owes more to Universal than its headliner. Legendary makeup maestro Jack Pierce helped create the zombies, much of the film was shot on the Universal Studios lot and the production borrowed sets and props from other horror movies, giving it a more sumptuous look than one might expect from the budget. Director Victor Halperin and his brother, producer Edward Halperin, may not have had the experience or talent of a Carl Laemle or James Whale, but they sure knew how to wring every last drop from very little. White Zombie is creepy and atmospheric and looks really good. The Halperin brothers really got their money's worth.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the acting.

Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, a Voodoo master with an unsubtle name, who uses zombies to work in his sugar mill. Scoff if you will, but its a pretty good business plan. Cheaper than dealing with unions and health care plans. Plus, no need to provide free coffee for employees. Just keep a few brains in the break room fridge.
There is an interesting bit near the beginning when the audience sees the zombies working in the mill, carrying baskets of sugar cane and turning a massive wheel to grind the cane. One zombie stumbles and falls into the mill. There is no scream and no dramatic music, just a crunching sound.

The main plot of the film sees a young couple arrive in Haiti to get married. A “friend” of the couple lusts for the virginal bride-to-be and hires Lugosi to “zombify” the young lady. The Haitian Voodoo master with the Hungarian accent agrees, but has plans of his own.

While it looks good, the movie is something of a snoozefest whenever Lugosi is not on camera. It is totally dependent on its star's presence, and if ever there was an actor with “presence,” it was Bela Lugosi. He is given a weird, two-pronged beard and up-swooped eyebrows to make him look even more satanic than usual. He does a lot of hand-acting in this flick, strange hand gestures that are evidently messages to the dead, or evil spirits, or something like that. He also does eye acting. His hypnotic stare dominates the screen.
As for the rest of the cast, Madge Bellamy, much coveted female lead, is actually more animated as an animated corpse than as a blushing bride, and the supposed hero staggers through much of the second half like he has the flu. The problem is, with the exception of Lugosi, the cast doesn't seem to realize they are in a talkie. Everyone acts with the exaggerated, wide-eyed, head-clutching, grimacing performances of a silent movie. Most of the best scenes in the movie feature Lugosi on his own, such as when he carves a Voodoo doll from a candle beneath a street lamp.

There was one notably creepy moment when Lugosi has a one-sided conversation with a victim slowly turning into a zombie. “You are the first person to know what is happening.” Sadly, the scene is all too brief and doesn't really go anywhere.
To the modern viewer, the movie has bigger problems than hammy acting. That problem is made clear by the title, WHITE Zombie. The racial awkwardness is somewhat mitigated by the fact that nearly all the zombies are white. If fact, there are so few people of color in the cast that the film could have taken place in Cornwall rather than Haiti. Nevertheless, it is a movie about white men using Voodoo, something basically considered a “black thing.” Perhaps this could be considered an early film about cultural appropriation.

There is also an inconsistency in the movie worth noting, especially when taken in context with other tales of Voodoo zombies. It has long been theorized that the story of zombies stem from the use of a drug or potion that can put a victim into a deep, coma-like state virtually indistinguishable from death, only to be awakened at a later time, perhaps after having been buried alive. At one point in White Zombie, it is suggested that is exactly what has happen to those unfortunate zombies. Yet, later on, a gun is fired repeatedly at those same zombies to no effect, suggesting they are not simply in a trance but in fact really dead. So which is it?'s Hammer time

Gordon Hopkins is an award winning reporter and columnist for The Fairbury Journal-News, a 130-year-old newspaper in Jefferson County, Nebraska (He hasn't been working there that entire time.) He has also written a couple of crime novels (“Fraudsters” and the best-selling “Broken”) and edited a few non-fiction books.

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