Zombies certainly are all the rage these days. Made a weekly activity by “The Walking Dead” and further celebrated through marathon/obstacle course events involving zombie attackers, even I sometimes think ahead to the zombie apocalypse. But before zombies were flesh-eating, contagious, reanimated dead, they were dormant individuals affected by voodoo magic. Movies such as I Walked With a Zombie and The Serpent and the Rainbow classify themselves in the horror genre, but flicks about voodoo zombies don’t bring with them the same gore as our contemporary concept of the living dead.
White Zombie is the same way. Rather than creatures to be feared, the zombies in this picture are made into such creatures to work as indentured servants without causing a fuss. The monster in this movie is Bela Lugosi‘s voodoo priest who threatens to transform you into such a soulless, mindless form.
As with other of these classic zombie concept movies, the setting is Haiti. Here a betrothed couple has newly arrived. They had planned to be married upon leaving the boat, but were persuaded by Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) to wait. Beaumont desires the young Madeline (Madge Bellamy) for himself and will go to extreme lengths to secure her.
Madeline and fiance Niel (John Harron) encounter their first set of zombies on the way to the home of Mr. Beaumont. A group of the mindless men march in the darkness having just finished a day’s work at “Murder” Legendre’s (Lugosi) sugar mill. They, along with an encounter with Murder, frighten Madeline, whose scarf is snatched away by the voodoo master.
Neil and Madeline are married in Beaumont’s home, but the girl is given a potion that causes her to seemingly drop dead at dinner. Murder and Beaumont exhume her body and transform her into a zombie. Beaumont does not like the creature Madeline has become, however, and asks Murder to bring her back to life. Murder refuses, having his own ideas for the girl whom he will later command to kill Neil. A battle will ensue among the various parties until we discover the only way to break a zombie trance is to kill the one who holds power over the undead.
In some ways I think the voodoo concept of a zombie is more personally frightening than the undead we see in today’s films. Whereas the contemporary zombie is a person who has died and whose body merely comes back to life with only animalistic instinct remaining, the Haitian approach conveys the torture of losing control of your body via a spell. I think most mythology along these lines suggests the person never really dies but appears to have passed, leading to their burial (In The Serpent and the Rainbow a potion “kills” a person for 12 hours and when he regains his senses is already buried. The lack of oxygen causes brain damage, so when exhumed, the person is quite different.). Madeline retains all her beauty and vibrancy but her eyes are blank of emotion or acknowledgement of those around her.
Whereas the grotesque zombie of today is required to be written off by loved ones as no longer the same person, Neil is ever-more frustrated because his wife looks the same but refuses to acknowledge him. He knows there must be some way to revive her but cannot find the way himself, so the voodoo approach is also much more emotionally draining for loved ones.
- White Zombie is set for 5:15 p.m. ET Oct. 31 on TCM.