This is not part of the Universal Classic Monsters box set. I am going to give it the benefit of the doubt and say that is only because it is not a Universal picture.
Betrothed couple Madeline & Neil are being taken by horse-drawn carriage to the plantation of Charles Beaumont, when they encounter a funeral taking place in the road. The driver explains that burials are made there to protect the dead — body-snatchers do not want any witnesses; also probably not too interested in being trampled to death by horses-drawn carriages, so a win-win.
The driver later needs directions and for reasons unknown, Bela Lugosi happens to be standing by the side of the road. The driver, to the shame of men everywhere, pulls over and asks for directions. Lugosi ignores the driver and approaches the passenger compartment. Silently, he stares at the couple, placing his hand on the door, and on Madeline’s scarf. The driver sees Lugosi’s zombie entourage shambling up and gets the carriage moving again. Lugosi is left with a handful of Madeline’s scarf, which luckily was not too tightly knotted around her neck.
Only 4 minutes in, but I was surprised that I was finding this movie to be pretty effective for an unremastered public domain joint. The drums and the native chanting create a chilling atmosphere. The drive-by funeral and scene with Lugosi already provided some iconic visuals.
At their Haitian plantation destination, Neil asks the driver why he was so reckless in driving away. He explains that “they were not men, they were dead bodies, zombies, the living dead, corpses taken from their graves, made to work in the sugar mills and fields at night”.
Neil & Madeline meet local missionary Bruner at the Beaumont estate. Madeline says she just met Beaumont on the boat from New York, coming to marry Neil in Port-au-Prince. The missionary says that Beaumont doesn’t usually take an interest in people like this. Beaumont has also offered to make Neil his agent in New York despite his obvious inability to put 2 and 2 together.
Beaumont looks a little like Liberace, but even that does not make him the creepiest resident of the estate. His butler Silver is not one of the living dead, but the cadaverous servant could be one of the dead living. Some clunky dialogue mixed with some missing footage make this an awkward, choppy scene. Somehow, even its imperfections worked for me. It is 80 years old, after all.
After greeting Neil, Madeline and Bruner, Beaumont boards a coach driven by a zombie. Again, the atmosphere is well set with the deafening croaking of tree frogs, and the blank-faced zombie driver.
Beaumont arrives at the mill of Murder Legendre (Lugosi). In yet another iconic scene, we see Zombies Local 102 mindlessly carrying in baskets of sugar cane and dumping them into a thresher. Other zombies are slowly turning a big wheel, grinding the cane. When one of the zombies falls into the thresher, there is no move to save him, or stop the grinding. None of them misses a step. For the love of God, where is the shop steward?
Beaumont has the hots for Madeline, and has come to Legendre for help. Legendre is the proverbial hammer-wielder who sees every problem as a nail, ergo his solution is to make her a zombie. Really, what did Beaumont expect? You’re taking love advice from a guy named Murder, dude.
To his credit, Beaumont thinks that might be a tad extreme. Not so much out of concern for Madeline, but because he would have to live with this dead-eyed thing. Even while escorting Madeline to the altar, he is still hitting on her. Thank God his brother George wasn’t there to see it.
Ever the romantic, Legendre still wants to get these crazy kids together. He wraps her purloined scarf around a candle, and lights it from a lamp to induce a trance. At the reception, looking into a cup of tea, she sees Legendre’s piercing eyes and collapses. There is a hokie but great shot as Legendre walks to the camera.
Madeline is buried in a huge, easy-access, handi-capable crypt, where Beaumont, Legendre and the zombie crew retrieve her while still fresh.
After a night of drinking, making a stumbling fool of himself, Neil goes to visit Madeline’s grave. Discovering it is deficient in bodies to the tune of one, he consults Bruner. The missionary tells him that either the body was stolen to use her bones in a ceremony, or she is not dead.
Legendre has reanimated Madeline, but Beaumont can see there is no light in her eyes, she has no soul. Strangely, however, she is able to play the piano, which should have appealed to this Liberace doppelganger. He asks Legendre to restore her, but there is no way; well, not one that Legendre cares to reveal. But Legendre does the next best thing and zombifies Beaumont, clearly thinking that the 1930’s were not ready for a mixed marriage.
In what plays out almost as a silent movie, Legendre compels Madeline to stab Neil, but she resists and runs away. Neil is able to follow her out of the castle to an escarpment. Legendre makes with the trance again and his zombie posse comes to his aid.
When Bruner knocks Legendre unconscious, the zombies become confused and began shambling off the side of the escarpment like lemmings. Madeline comes to life for a moment, even able to smile.
As Legendre regains consciousness, she slips back under his control. Beaumont, who had also experienced a brief moment of lucidity, comes down the stairs and tosses Legendre off the escarpment.
Once Legendre is dead, his control over Madeline is broken and she awakens. Great for her and Neil, but not so much for the poor saps who threw themselves off a cliff 30 seconds before their potential salvation. And not to quibble, but she was dead-dead, not only mostly-dead. I buy Legendre reanimating the dead as zombies, but this was a full-on resurrection.
On the Universal Classic Monsters scale, I give it a Wolf Man. Shockingly, I have liked 4 of 4 from the $5 box set.
- Considered to be the 1st feature-length zombie film.
- White Zombie was released when genre master Charles Beaumont was 3 years old. So, just coincidence.
- Lest you think Mr. & Mrs. Legendre named their precious little bundle of joy Murder, the name is in quotes in the credits. How he acquired this nickname is not addressed, but is surely a charming anecdote.
- Although Neil’s drinking binge is terribly overacted, it is set to some great music, and features great silhouettes on the wall of dancers who are never seen.
- The film quality is fairly poor with hazy visuals, bad background noise, music gaps and missing frames. I watched the You-Tube version which was in better shape than the DVD version. There is a remastered Blu-Ray version that I hope to watch someday.
- Vanity Fair unfairly included it in an article called “the Worst Movie of 1932.” Although, to VF’s credit, it did only award it 2nd-worst status for the year. And have some sympathy for them; JFK was still just 15 so they couldn’t devote every other goddamn issue to that family yet.
- I have no idea what a thresher actually is, but that sounds like a good name for that grinding machinery.
- Crypt: A subterranean chamber or vault. Tomb: An excavation for burial of a corpse; or mausoleum / burial chamber. Grave: An excavation made in the earth to bury a dead body. Just so we’ve got that straight.
- Bruner needing a match has got to be the lamest character trait / comedy relief in movie history.