White Zombie


Director: Victor Halperin

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Revolt of the ZombiesDuring World War I, a regiment of French Cambodians from the lost city of Angkor fought on the Franco-Austrian front.

They were followers of a Buddhist high priest (William Crowell) who decided to turn the troop into nearly unstoppable zombies in order to defeat the Germans.

But the French were so horrified by this army that they decided to lock up the Cambodian high priest in solitary confinement forever, so that the secret of zombification would never be known, though the priest is assassinated before being imprisoned.

Revolt of the ZombiesSoonafter, an expedition was sent to Angkor to find & destroy any remnant of the zombification ritual.

Such is the beginning premise of Revolt of the Zombies (1936). One of the men on the Southeast Asian expedition (Dean Jagger) finds the secret recipe for creating zombies & is corrupted by this power.

He started out more or less a good guy with a much more overt bad guy in the wings (Roy D'Arcy), the chap who'd killed the Cambodian priest & seems to be some kind of double agent.

But that guy's soon knocked out of the picture & the "good" guy, due to having lost at love, begins misusing the very power he was supposed to destroy.

The power of creating zombies is on the order of mesmeric & telepathic mind control, as was the case with the majority of zombie films of the era.

Revolt of the ZombiesOur lovelorn semi-villain doesn't want to zombify the girl (Dorothy Stone) who has rejected him, so he zombifies her father (George Cleveland), her beloved (Robert Noland), a whole regiment of Cambodians, & threatens to take over the world. He then blackmails the girl into being with him.

She convinces him that if he really loved her he'd let go of his power over all those people, so he sets everyone's will free.

His Japanese servant (Teru Shimada) who had been his first zombie awakens to himself & unites the other ex-zombies to storm the mansion in order to avenge themselves upon their master.

Revolt of the Zombies is only a little over an hour in length but felt like three hours. A terrible film, but by right of its vintage, it has an odd appeal, like second-rate antiques or musty books in a roadside junk store.

White ZombieThe eyes superimposed on the screen during telepathic creation of zombies are actually the eyes of Bela Lugosi, snipped in from Victor Halperin's first & better known shlock feature White Zombie (1932).

The better known film, by having Lugosi at the head of the cast, is automatically the better film, & the zombies are rather more sinister than the mere mind-controlled mortals of Revolt.

White Zombie was a huge success in its day, yet for many years afterward it was a "lost" film, rediscovered in 1960. The gloomy black & white cinematography is better than such a cheapo film deserves to be.

Given that this came out in the time of some of the best classic horror films of all time, it's surprising White Zombie has so little in its favor. The script was based on a stage play & was perhaps over talkative & set-restrictive to begin with.

White ZombieLugosi uses his eyes & accent & hand-movements to create a formidable villainous presence. Some believe it to be his second-best role after the original Dracula (1931), but if this is true, it is probably because he had so few honestly meritorious roles.

Heroin addiction squelched his career while other iconic stars of horror cinema had a couple more decades of films in them.

Depressive & addicted, Bela having already pluged from the height of his career to such low-budget shlockers as the Halperin brothers' zombie flicks, to further descent toward the famously inept director Ed Wood at the end of his career.

His dynamic screen presence overcomes the awfulness of the majority of his films, among which White Zombie certainly stands above the average.

White Zombie The title White Zombie derives from the sentiment that no matter how many zombies are created, it's only a white girl who counts. The many other zombies in the story are spooky decorations who no one is expected to care about. Because they're black

I hate to ponder what it must have felt like to be a black kid in the 1940s who loved the cinema & kept getting such awful images of black society off the otherwise loveable screen.

Set in Haiti, black folks sing "oo wah wah wah" & bury their dead in a manner designed to stop voudon practitioners from reanimating them as slaves.

White ZombieThe racism & especially the racist treatment of voudon as an inherently evil religion did not originate in White Zombie, but in pulp magazines. Yet White Zombie was the first influential film to duplicate these pulp attitudes about Haitian voodoo.

White Zombie thus informed the nature of zombyism in cinema for decades to follow, at least until George Romero redefined zombies as mysterious resurged dead who ate living human flesh, no different from ghouls.

One wonders if the Halperin brothers got some critical feedback from voudon practitioners & felt a little guilty about it, for their second zombie film Revolt of the Zombies does not malign a folk-religion of Africa & Haiti, but makes it most improbably a practice of Cambodian buddhists.

Bela as "Murder Legrendre" in White Zombie has learned the secrets of reanimating the dead & lives as a king among zombies in an isolated jungle castle in Haiti He states that if he ever lost control of his zombies, they would tear him to pieces, but he never does lose control of them (the Halperins picked that ball up again in Revolt of the Zombies).

Beaumont (Robert Frazer), hopelessly in love, hires Legrendre to help him force Madeleine (Madge Bellamy) to stop rejecting him. But when she is turned into an obedient zombie, Beaumont regrets what he has done, turns against Legrendre, who thus slips the zombie formula into Beaumont's wine.

A missionary priest (Joseph Cawthorn), a colorful "good" witchdoctor-priest (Don Crimmins), & Madeleine's pre-zombie-days boyfriend (John Harron) join forces to defeat Legendre in his menacing castle & liberate Madeleine even if nobody else. White Zombie climaxes with a "love conquers all" message, as Madeleine's mind fights back to consciousness in the arms of her beau. For crap, this is cool stuff.

Continue to:
Teenage Zombies (1959)

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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