White Zombie

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 9, 2015

That Lugosi is a handsome devil. They make him mug a lot, though. What was striking in Dracula is already becoming mannerist here. But I’ll bet he could have done more for them, poor guy. The situation here is also very Dracula-like; the sets are actually from the earlier film. Again, they’re superb, and very well utilized. Dracula-like, but with a colonial wrinkle. Instead of the westerner getting lost in the Carpathians, this time the westerners come to stay with some other occupying westerners, and then get lost at the hands of a Kurtz-like white guy gone selectively, inaccurately native. Having established these hierarchies, the film’s zombie idea is very simple, and very poignant. They are corpses in the service of the boss, or in other words, hopeless oppressed workers. The zombies look great, and they’re effectively utilized—atmospherically in the factory, dramatically at the climax. More than that, in their situation they prefigure what seemed so radical in George Romero’s Land of the Dead. Basically, they’re the good guys!

With regard to Haiti and all, White Zombie is actually quite refreshingly progressive. As the superb Dr. Bruner/Joseph Cawthorn—a thoroughly satisfying Van Helsing figure—tells us, the local superstitions come from Africa, which is to say from Egypt (the most powerful empire in the world), and thence from “the countries that were old when Egypt was young.” Fantastic: not only are they trying to be scary, they’re also, quite casually, giving respect to indigenous traditions, and their weighty continuity. “She’s not alive, in the hands of natives!” says the wan white swain. (As boring as in a L&H or Marx Bros. movie.) “Better dead than that!” Typical sentiments, but Bruner laughs them right off. A few awkward bits disappear in the midst of all this cool. Maybe White Zombie is just a bit too slow. Or perhaps it’s an unofficial, proto-Val Lewton film. It’s certainly full of terrific compositions and beautiful camera moves (the coffin being placed in the crypt!). Powerful conclusion! Also, I like that match joke. This is much underrated, and very much worth your while.