White Zombie (1932)
Directed by Victor Halperin
Sunday, October 7, at Spectacle Theater, and again October 19. Digital projection.
There's a history of the zombie film as colonial metaphor. In both Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1942) and its Portuguese remake, Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava (1994), the black undead serve as living reminders of crumbling white patriarchal control. They hulk through areas full of workers and servants, and though they, too, seem to be serving their masters, but that same appearance of mindlessness makes you wonder whether they would hesitate to revolt.
In Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), set on Haiti, the zombies are mainly former high society members. The local witch doctor Murder Legendre (a grinning, word-savoring Béla Lugosi) introduces each of his workers: the wealthy doctor, the Minister of the Interior, and the High Executioner, each of whom once posed a threat to this mystery man, all of whom now follow his lead. They’ve been robbed of their souls, then taken from their graves and put to labor in the local sugarcane mill; we watch them bent over as they push the wheels forward and hear the floorboards creak from the sounds of their heavy feet. “They work gratefully,” says Legendre. “They are not worried about long hours.” He has made them slaves by removing their free wills.
But even Legendre, with his large eyes and creepy stillness, isn’t the worst person on the island. This particular human monster only follows his nature—the man who commands him is worse. As with other Hollywood horror films of the period, we enter White Zombie through two young lovers (Madge Bellamy and John Harron), who in this case have come to the island to be married. Unbeknown to them, though, the older plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), perhaps the wealthiest man in the area, is scheming to steal the bride. He contracts Legendre to help him get her, which the wicked one does by turning her into a walking corpse. While her fiancée grows tormented in a shadowy bar, seeing and hearing her call his name from each wall, Beaumont sees himself as her master, and Legendre’s, and everyone’s. But he’s wrong—even a master is only a man, and can be enslaved like any other. In time, Legendre stares at his former foe, now a zombie, and just another mindless worker. "So I see that you refuse to shake hands," he says to the rich man. "We understand each other better now."