White Zombie – USA, 1932

‘She was not alive… nor dead… just a’

White Zombie is a 1932 American supernatural horror feature film directed and produced by brothers Victor Halperin and Edward Halperin. The screenplay by Garnett Weston tells the story of a young woman’s transformation into a zombie at the hands of evil voodoo master Murder Legendre, played by Bela Lugosi.

Madge Bellamy appeared as Legendre’s victim. Other cast members included Robert W. Frazer, John Harron and Joseph Cawthorn.

Large portions of the White Zombie were shot on the Universal Studios lot, borrowing many props and scenery from other horror films of the era. The film opened in New York to negative reception, with reviewers criticizing the film’s over-the-top story and weak acting performances. While the film made a substantial financial profit as an independent feature, it proved to be less popular than other horror films of the time.

White Zombie is considered the first feature length zombie film. A sequel to the film, titled Revolt of the Zombies, opened in 1936. Modern reception to White Zombie has been more positive than its initial release. Some critics have praised the atmosphere of the film, comparing it to the 1940s horror film productions of Val Lewton, while others still have an unfavorable opinion on the quality of the somewhat-dated acting manner.

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White Zombie almost defies conventional criticism. Much of the acting is bad – very bad; the sparse dialogue is, on the whole, equally undistinguished; yet these defects seem barely to matter when set in the context of the film’s superb style and eerie, dreamlike atmosphere. This is one of those rare films where, you feel, the planets must have aligned during production: nothing that any of the participants created in later years comes close to matching the technical virtuosity on display here. White Zombie is a minor masterpiece, a nightmare in chiaroscuro.” And You Call Yourself a Scientist!

“The mood of menace conveyed by the carefully considered set design and somber, deliberately inadequate lighting equals the very best that Universal’s directors could come up with, while the innovative camera work and special visual effects rival that of the German expressionists of the 20’s. The movie also holds up better than most of its contemporaries in that it somehow avoided the cornball sentimentality and overly stylized, stagy performances so characteristic of 30’s films.” 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting

“This is one of the underground classics of horror. Made on a shoestring and atrociously acted, the film nonetheless emerges as a strangely poetic fairy-tale about a beastly zombie master and the beauty he lures to his lair and functions in a dislocated, dreamlike manner reminiscent of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931).” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror

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“Certain aspects of Victor Halperin’s 1932 film—the alternately trancelike and hysterical performances, the willful lack of shot-to-shot continuity, the curled eyebrows and forked goatee of Bela Lugosi’s witch doctor—threaten to reduce the film to camp but end up contributing to its dreamlike, dread-soaked atmosphere.” Max Nelson, FilmComment.com

” …this is really a film about sexual jealousy and control, not about zombies. It is slow and subtle, and I can only recommend it to those in the mood for vintage horror that is heavy with history but low on thrills and chills. Nowhere is it great.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers

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“Halperin shoots this poetic melodrama as trance: insinuating ideas and images of possession, defloration, and necrophilia into a perfectly stylised design, with the atmospherics conjuring echoes of countless fairy-ales. The unique result constitutes a virtual bridge between classic Universal horror and the later Val Lewton productions.” Paul Taylor, The Time Out Film Guide

“The film has an eerie quality about it, as much due to the primitive technical qualities as to any inherent Gothic atmosphere. It is now very much a cult movie, not entirely deserved since re-viewing reveals a confused plot and indifferent performances apart from an interesting one from Lugosi.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook, Batsford, 1982

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