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White Zombie (1932)

Classic zombie film

While traveling to New York, the young couple Madeleine Short Parker (Madge Bellamy) and her fiancé Neil Parker (John Harron) are convinced by their new acquaintance Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) to stay in Port Prince and get married in his mansion. However, Beaumont felt in love for Madeleine and his real intention is to convince her to call off the wedding. When he realizes that the time is too short to seduce her, he visits the local witch Legendre (Bela Lugosi), who gives him a drug to transform Madeleine into a zombie. She dies immediately after the wedding, and her corpse is disputed by Beaumont and his sick love for her; Legendre, that wants her for his team of zombies; and Neil, who is convinced by the local missionary Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) that she might be alive. In the end, true love wins.

White Zombie was the first zombie film ever made and certainly displays influences from the horror films of Universal. Borrowing sets from Dracula and Frankenstein (among others), the film also stars Dracula’s Bela Lugosi. Also like Dracula, White Zombie features a creepy carriage ride early in the film. (In this sequence the hero and heroine encounter Lugosi leading his zombies in a way that led me to think of a much later film — Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with its famous image of Death leading a knight and his friends.) The central character of Lugosi’s Murder Legendre certainly looks like a Universal baddie — the makeup was designed and applied by Universal’s makeup maven, Jack Pierce.

In turn, White Zombie influenced other films, defining the cinematic “rules” that more or less characterized movie depictions of zombies until George Romero’s 1968 influential independent Night of the Living Dead was released. It also uses sound better than was common at the time, using music to create mood, an uncommon practice in the early years of talking pictures, and often startles the viewer with the use of the piercing cry of a vulture. Classic Horror

Director: Victor Halperin
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn

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