Rarely does a film take you into another world so completely. Only in other horror classics such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are there such fantastic sets and macabre atmospherics. Plus, there’s the creepy music along with screams and cries, some human, some animal, some subhuman. Then there’s Bela Lugosi, as Legendre, whom I found scarier here than in his celebrated role as Dracula.
Madge Bellamy plays a fairly good innocent young bride, Madeline. Also notable is Joseph Cawthorne as Dr. Bruner. His character is interesting in that he’s a little off, nonchalantly asking Neil (John Harron) “Have you ever been dead?” Actually, all the non-zombie characters are off a bit. Bruner gives a pretty good rundown on zombie history and culture (so to speak), and proves indispensable at the end. He kind of reminds me of a ghost hunter or UFO specialist seen on reality TV. The zombies are mentally unbalanced as well as disfigured by horrible grimaces on their cadaverous faces; nonetheless they have distinct personalities.
On the other hand, the bridegroom Neil and his host Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) are forgettable ciphers. It says a lot for the zombie cult that Beaumont only becomes interesting when Legendre has him under his influence. Madeline also ‘comes alive’ as a zombie; otherwise, she’s just ok. In some scenes Legendre is a bit much, almost a caricature of the devil; still his visage looms everywhere: in a glass, out of thin air, up close, his eyes locking onto his victims, always in control.
The only noticeably contrived set is Legendre’s castle. Still, it’s well-done (a painting or model I suppose) and merges convincingly into an actual seashore. It’s also half of the effective split screen image with Neil in the other panel. Madeline is so ghostly walking about the castle that we feel the chill. The staircase is a masterpiece of expressionist and gothic motifs. Even the entrance to it is a hazardous zone.
The denouement brings the four principles together for a showdown. The most haunting bit sees the zombies casting themselves over the cliff, lemming-like. There’s pretty good tension as Madeline and Neil flicker in and out of the their zombie states until Bruner arrives and Legendre’s eliminated. The happy ending is laid on a bit thick, but at least it happens simply and quickly.
The plot itself is quite simple, which makes sense, as White Zombie is mostly a visual experience. Still, the pacing seems to slow to a crawl. I don’t think that’s a function of this being an early talkie; many silent films are well-paced. Despite the pacing and acting flaws this is a must-see for horror fans. When you see the graveyard, you feel the graveyard; the same with the burial in the road, the apparitions, the castle, and, the ultimate horror scene: the zombies at the sugar mill. That’s straight out of a nightmare, yet all too real. 7/10.