History of the Zombie Genre (Part 1: White Zombie)
So I’ve decided to take it upon myself to undertake something that I will probably regret. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been fascinated by the Zombie sub-genre of horror because it was always a good enough mix of action and horror to keep me interested. I never intended to become a historian of the genre (for lack of a better term), nor was I really interested in every single Zombie movie that I ever heard about. However, as the years roll on and I watch enough of them I notice patterns and then suddenly feel like I’m some kind of expert. For the record, I really wish I knew more about math or something.
I really racked my brain about how I was going to discuss this topic and not put people to sleep. It’s really one of those genres that has a lot of twists and turns but basically can be divided up in three parts. From each part I will try to include about two different films, some I’m sure you will have seen or at least heard of. It’s time for Horror History starting with the very first feature film about the undead: White Zombie.
White Zombie hit theatres in 1932 and, when it did, the world was introduced to the concept of Zombies. Now these weren’t the flesh eating, mindless zombies that everyone is now familiar with. These Zombies were the product of Haitian mysticism.
To start off, the film had some major production and distribution issues. Even though it stars Béla Lugosi and is a horror film in the 1930’s, it actually wasn’t produced by universal, but rather independently by United Artists. It isn’t a Universal horror picture, but it sure ends up looking like one. The reason for this is they rented old sets from Dracula, Frankenstein and the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
So what’s it about? Well, basically Lugosi plays Murder Legendre (Really? Murder?) who is a white Haitian (don’t question it) Voodoo shaman with his own horde of mind controlled Zombies. He uses them to run his sugar plant and cotton fields and occasionally murders people who get in his way. Enter Madeleine (hauntingly beautiful Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron), a soon-to-be married couple on their way to a lodging in Haiti to tie the knot. The master of the house is Charles Beaumont, a plantation owner and old friend of the couple who is desperately in love with Madeleine. So desperate, in fact, that he makes a deal with Legendre to make her his. As you can imagine, he gets more than he bargains for when dealing with a guy named “Murder”.
The acting is laughably bad despite many of these actors being legends of the silent film era. Beaumont’s butler, for instance, was played by Brandon Hurst who was incredible in the Man who Laughs. The issue with a lot of these actors is that they are masters of conveying emotion with body language, but when it comes to their voices… well let’s just say it’s unintentionally funny. Speaking of sound, there are several extremely annoying scenes with a vulture that just won’t shut up. Also, when they show the Zombies working in the sugar mill, it’s just this constant annoying squeak. I seriously wished it was a silent film at times. Lugosi is Lugosi, I’ve always considered him both an overrated and underrated actor. He is pretty much channeling Dracula the entire time, which makes sense because he was fresh-off that movie when he started shooting this.
When it comes to Zombie films in general, modern audiences already have an idea going into it what it will be like. I will say for anyone expecting a lot of action or flesh eaters rising from the grave, you won’t get that here. I do like the scene where Lugosi introduces each one of his troop of Zombies, each has a name and a story behind how they got there. It’s important to note that, in the very beginning, it was always black magic or mysticism that was responsible for the dead rising. Of course at the centre of all that there was a necromancer that had the undead do his bidding. This was basically the formula for the genre up until the 60’s. I highly recommend that anyone interested check this one; it’s a different kind of Zombie movie before the game was changed forever.