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White Zombie is the granddaddy of all zombie flicks

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: World War Z inspires five nights of the living dead.

White Zombie (1932)
It’s never wise to go into business with a zombie master, as Robert Frazer’s amour-struck Haitian plantation owner learns all to well after striking a deal with Béla Lugosi’s local black-magic devil in White Zombie. Based on William Seabrook’s novel, Victor Halperin’s film is the granddaddy of all zombie films, imagining the undead as figurative victims of colonial oppression, with Lugosi’s voodoo kingpin using his supernatural powers to kill and then reanimate his enemies—as well as scores of local Haitians —as robotic slaves so they can serve him in his sugar mill. Lugosi’s unholy skills prove attractive to Frazer after he meets, and immediately falls head-over-heels in love with, angelic beauty Madge Bellamy, and endeavors to steal her away from her husband-to-be John Harron. It’s a plot that leads him, against his better judgment, to kill her with Lugosi’s vial of magic something-or-other on the night of her wedding and, soon afterwards, to extricate her from her tomb so she can be his vacant-eyed, piano-playing zombie mate.


Received quite negatively upon its theatrical debut, White Zombie is rarely scary, and its performances are more than a tad melodramatic, even for the era. Yet the power of the film’s imagery endures: Behold the numerous zooms into close-up of the iconic Lugosi—whose intense, malevolent eyes are enhanced by matching mustache, goatee, and eyebrow tufts, all curled into horn-like shapes—and beautifully understated sequences such as one in which the camera first reveals Joseph Cawthorn’s doctor by peering underneath the crook of Harron’s arm before zooming out and curling around Harron to capture the remainder of their discussion via a single-take master shot. Primarily, however, the film’s ominous dread comes courtesy of its signature living-dead ghouls, presented as soulless creatures doomed to eternal, empty subjugation—a fate that Frazer comes to fear too late to save himself, and is only ultimately undone by that hoariest of anti-evil devices: true love.

Availability: Numerous DVD editions and one Kino Blu-ray, rental and purchase from the usual digital providers, and streaming on Netflix.

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