Saturday, 17 October 2015

October Nightmares #17: White Zombie (1932)

And so we come to the first 'true' zombie movie of the list. A fitting place to start really, because White Zombie is considered the first full-length zombie film, as well as the Codifier for the genre pre-Romero. It's hard to picture a time when anything involving the shambling hordes could feel like a breath of fresh air. The bastards show up in everything now, you can probably even buy a zombie themed easy bake oven off Amazon. What took the absolute biscuit for me was Warm Bodies, a 2013 paranormal romantic comedy where a girl falls in love with a zombie. What? It tries to do the whole Twilight renaissance shit but fails to realise that while vampires are dead and werewolves are bestial they are still fundamentally close to human and not rotten. "But...but he gets better," the film attempted to reason with me. Oh so when you say he's a zombie, you actually mean he's just got an atrocious cold? Fucking amateurs.

White Zombie is notable for staying true to the 'folklore' of zombies, depicting more as thralls under the control of voodoo priests. Supposedly these priests would use voodoo magic to enslave a living being - or animate a corpse - and force them to do their bidding. As I mentioned previously, it was Romero who reinvented the genre to be rotting corpses consuming the flesh of the living - some thirty-six years later. However, White Zombie's monsters do share similarities with those of Romero's '...of the Dead' series. Chiefly it's their unwavering determination at shambling after their intended victim - with the singular motivation of ending them like Jack Kevorkian visiting his intolerable in-laws.

There's even a harrowing transformation scene where secondary hero/anti-hero Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) is poisoned by the villain (masterfully played by Béla Lugosi) and undergoes a slow transformation- filled with existential dread at the fate that awaits him. Writer Garnett Weston manages to form the prototype for the type of death scene which would appear at least once in every subsequent zombie film, but what's interesting to note here is how he frames this. Usually, an ill-fated character in the zombie genre meets their untimely end as a direct consequence of their stupidity - not unlike anyone who has ever died as through a selfie-related accident. Here, Beaumont is defeated by the Machiavellian plots of the villain - outwitted and outmanoeuvred. It's evocative of Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and elevates an already great villain to greater heights.

The story is not what one would expect from a zombie film, as there's no immediate threat to society or the human way of life. There are also no creepy redneck characters, who have been eagerly waiting for the apocalypse so that they can get their gun off. A soon to be married couple Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron) arrive in Hati where they attract the attention of voodoo master Murder Legendre (Lugosi), and plantation owner Beaumont. What follows is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet for people who think Julien Blanc is a shining beacon of masculinity. Beaumont, in love with Madeleine, visits Murder and asks for his help. Naturally Murder convinces him that turning her into a zombie will help. Oh, White Zombie, not you too! The two concoct this plan, and on Madeleine's wedding day she appears to die. Events delve into a psychological mystery of sorts as Neil is haunted by ghostly visions of Madeleine, and her body transpires to be missing. I'm not sure what Beaumont's plan was beyond causing Madeleine's loved ones immeasurable pain, and shacking up with a woman who is dead.

I would describe White Zombie as being more like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, than something like Zombie Flesh Eaters. Dealing with the unknown corners of the world and the darkness these places bring out in man, White Zombie feels like a straight-faced exploration of imperialism. The loosely connected sequel Revolt of the Zombies (1936) dwelt more on the issues of mysticism and had moments where the exotic and dangerous found itself in borders of modern civilisation, but no one seemed to connect the dots and this potential was abandoned in favour of a re-tread of the original. There's an especially chilling scene where Beaumont secretly meets Murder Legendre in his sugar-plant, and we see Legendre's zombie workforce. It's eerily quiet - save for the haunting grating wails of the machinery - as these lurching forms carry out their work in complete silence, even as one of them falls into the machine. For me, this a more unsettling kind of horror than hordes of rotting cannibals. And I would have liked to see to have what would have happened in someone like Legendre ended up somewhere like America.

Modern critics decry the overwrought acting, essentially claiming that it resembles that of a reenactment of the Terri Schiavo saga as done by rocks. For the most part, it's entirely adequate - Lugosi is the stand-out performer with his campy delivery as the colourful Legendre. While the set pieces intending to horrify and the acting aren't up to modern standards, White Zombie remains an engrossing film due to its atmosphere. I'm not sure what it is about classic horror, but they tend to have a sort of ghostly quality to their production. Maybe it's the grating reverb of the tinny audio, or the white noise that emphasises the loneliness of the quiet scenes. Whatever it is, White Zombie has a strange atmosphere that serves to create a lingering sense of unease and dread.

Towards the very end, there's a hauntingly beautiful sequence with Madeleine walking through Legendre's clifftop castle that features captivating contrasts of light, odd angles, and unusual framing - such as Madeleine's head appearing in the middle of a shaped recess as she walks toward the camera. The weird execution, coupled with the age enhanced atmosphere, makes White Zombie an eerie experience. And the most effective bit of Zombie-related media that I've seen in a long time. Disregarding that one time I had work rejected for publishing by a site that proudly promoted a story about zombie unicorns.