The Bootleg Files: White Zombie

BOOTLEG FILES 708: “White Zombie” (1932 horror film starring Bela Lugosi).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A copyright infringement accusation at the beginning of its production and a lapsed copyright after its release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There has yet to be a truly pristine commercial release of this title.

When “White Zombie” opened in New York in 1932, the critics were scathing in their denunciations. Words like “ridiculous,” “ludicrous,” “failure” and “Worst Movie of 1932” peppered the reviews. And while the critical slams did not scare away audiences, it nonetheless saddled the film with a negative reputation that required decades of repeated screenings and new generations of film scholars to mitigate the initial wave of abuse.

Today, “White Zombie” is acknowledged as the first feature film to include zombies in its plot. But much like the undead who straddle two worlds, “White Zombie” finds itself balanced between two different artistic spheres: the stagey and stilted environment of the early talkies period and a boldly artistic realm that found macabre beauty in chilling and grotesque imagery.

And “White Zombie” is also a classic example of how to fight back against copyright infringement charges. Director Victor Halperin and his brother, producer Edward Halperin, appeared to have absorbed more than a little inspiration from Kenneth Webb’s play “Zombie” when crafting their film. Webb’s play opened on Broadway in February 1932 and closed after only 21 performances, but he was negotiating the film rights when the Halperins announced their film project in March 1932. Alas for Webb, he failed to convince the court that the cinematic siblings had stolen his idea and ruined any plans for a “Zombie” film. In retrospect, Webb did have a point – the word “zombie” was only introduced to American audiences in 1929 via William B. Seabrook’s Haitian voodoo book “The Magic Island” and Webb was the first writer to use the word in the title of a creative work.

The Halperins managed to squeeze a paltry $50,000 from the entertainment financing company Amusement Securities Corp. to fund their work, and they negotiated with Universal Pictures and RKO to lease studio space and recycle sets from “Frankenstein,” “Dracula” and, incredibly, DeMille’s “King of Kings.” In a casting coup, they signed Bela Lugosi, who was enjoying a new stardom via “Frankenstein” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” as their star. How much Lugosi was paid for this low-budget project is unclear – sources put his fee anywhere from $500 to $5,000 – and the actor would later complain that he was acutely underpaid for his performance.

In the opening sequences, “White Zombie” promises to be something that’s very, very different. A group of Haitians have gathered to bury a body in the middle of a road when a horse drawn carriage comes upon them. The occupants of the carriage are a young white couple and they ask their driver (the great black character actor Clarence Muse, who goes unbilled in the credits) about this unusual activity. The driver solemnly informs them that the burial in the road is designed to prevent grave robbers from pilfering the recently deceased.

As the carriage passes the unlikely burial and travels into a dark wooded area, a pair of mesmerist eyes are superimposed over them. We quickly see the source of this ocular intrusion: the mysterious Murder Legendre (Lugosi), who stands along the road wearing a black cape and a wide brimmed black hat. As the coach driver stops to ask directions of Legendre, director Halperin cuts to one of the most astonishing shots in 1930s cinema: the young female passenger (Madge Bellamy) sits within the coach in porcelain white beauty as the swarthy and dark-robed Legendre leans through the window to her and a small squad of intruders come staggering down a small hill behind Legendre. The driver recognizes the intrudes as zombies and directs the horses to gallop off, but not before Legendre steals the woman’s long white scarf. The carriage arrives at a mansion and the male passenger scolds the driver for driving recklessly. The driver tells the man that he saved them from zombies, and then he spots them walking in silhouetted single-file along a ridge.

Up to now, “White Zombie” is a visually stunning creation, and the soundtrack – the Haitian chants surrounding the burial, the surreal exaggeration of the twilight insect noises in the forest – were innovative for an era where sound effects were anything but intriguing. And Lugosi, despite a theatrical make-up job, is genuinely chilling in his wordless introduction.

But at this point, “White Zombie” turns into another movie. The mansion is the home of Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer), a wealthy plantation owner. The passengers are Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy) and her fiancé Neil Parker (John Harron). Beaumont has arranged to employ Parker as a sales agent for the American market, but that is a way to get rid of Parker because he is in love with Madeleine. Even though Beaumont arranges for the couple to get married in his home, he still babbles to an indifferent Madeleine about his love for her. This portion of the film is that it falls into the problematic protocol of the early sound films: heavily theatrical acting with melodramatic vocal emoting amidst fussy sets and static camerawork. The transition from the startling opening scenes to this claptrap gives the impression that two very different films were merged together.

Desperate to keep Madeleine for himself, Beaumont visits Legendre at his business: a sugar mill powered with zombie labor. Here, we are back to the film’s initial style and get to witness another segment of terrifying brilliance. The soundtrack is flushed with a hideous churning sound from the mill as the blank-eyed zombies push the massive machinery that crushes the sugar cane. White zombie guards stand in empty gazed authority over the black laborers, and one worker loses his balance and falls into the mill’s blades, where he is pulverized by the unstopping motion of his machinery-operating colleagues without offering a whimper in pain.

Beaumont is horrified by what he witnesses and declines to shakes hands with Legendre. We are treated to a remarkable bit of close-up hand acting by Lugosi, who curls his fingers into a ball of rage. Beaumont and Legendre discuss how to keep Madeleine from going off with Parker, and Legendre offers a vial of a strange potion that could put her in a state of suspended animation.

Now, we are back to the stiff early talkies environment with an elaborate wedding for the young couple at Beaumont’s mansion. In a somewhat embarrassing scene, Beaumont tries to talk the object of his affection out of marrying someone else, but she declines. While this occurs, Legendre is outside carving a lamplight candle into a human figure while wrapping Madeleine’s scarf around it. Madeleine sniffs the potion that Beaumont sprinkled on a rose and she collapses during the wedding dinner while Legendre melts the candle figure over a lamplight flame.

And from here, the arresting stylistic atmosphere returns with Madeleine’s burial in a crypt (a mini-masterwork of staging – you really need to see it to appreciate it) and a jolting scene where Parker drowns his sorrows in bar while the shadows of merry celebrants dance around him. Legendre introduces Beaumont to his zombie henchmen, all of them former enemies that became Legendre’s undead slaves. These ruffians open Madeleine’s crypt and steal her casket in a scene framed with the extraordinary sound effects of the dull shuffle of the zombies’ feet and the endless cricket chirps coupled with Lugosi’s powerful silence as he telepathically commands the zombies to carry out his dirty deeds. Parker arrives at the crypt shortly after and lets out a blood curdling scream when he discovers her absence.

Sadly, we go back to the stiff early talkies atmosphere as Parker conspires with a German-accented missionary Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) regarding the fate of Madeleine’s body. After a brief and embarrassing visit with a Haitian witch doctor (played by white English actor Dan Crimmins in horrible blackface), they decide to pay Legendre a visit. Thankfully, the modern style is back when Beaumont realizes Madeleine has become a zombie – a fate that he never anticipated and cannot embrace. To Beaumont’s horror, he realizes that Legendre has given him poisoned wine that will soon reduce him to a state of zombified servitude.

For the sake of those who never saw “White Zombie,” I will refrain describing the remainder of the plot. This is one film viewing experience that needs to be pursued without spoilers.

Calvin Thomas Beck’s 1975 book “Heroes of the Horrors” dubbed this production “Lugosi’s finest film” and insisted it “could very well be the best in the genre.” I cannot agree about it being the best Lugosi film, but it is certainly one of his best performances. His sinister demeanor is laced with a malicious congeniality – Legendre truly enjoys his evildoing and offers a gentle sense of amusement over the pain he is creating. While he is not a physically imposing entity, he is a masterwork of intellectual and emotional power, and Lugosi’s silent presence is often more commanding by anyone with dialogue.

Oh, but most of the supporting cast is nowhere near Lugosi’s power. Much of the ensemble were former silent film actors who had problems adapting to sound films, and it is easy to see why. Their acting is broad and flowery, as if they were playing to the last row of the balcony. Madge Bellamy’s Madeleine is lovely to look at – especially in the obligatory Pre-Code view of her in scanty lingerie – but her character behaves like such a ninny that we should be grateful when she is reduced to mute zombification. Robert W. Frazer’s Beaumont is too plummy to believe, but his character’s late-story fate shows a feat of acting that bears little resemblance to the florid antics that took up much of his screen time.

But despite its flaws, “White Zombie” has enough rich material to demand attention and respect. Granted, it took a long time for the film to gain the attention it deserved. Several studios passed on distributing the production until United Artists agreed to put it on the big screen. The film was re-released theatrically into the early 1950s and then became a staple of local television film shows for decades afterwards. Thanks to a lapsed copyright, it has been available on a wealth of low-rent VHS video and DVD releases taken from duped 16mm prints – and some of these offerings are nearly impossible to watch due to putrid visual and audio qualities. A 2013 Blu-ray from Kino was intended to be a definitive presentation, but some critics complained about the quality of restoration and the inclusion of a “raw” unrestored version in the same release. A YouTube posting by “JonathanWolfe038” claims to be an “HD Remastered” edition, and this is the most visually satisfying version I’ve seen so far.

The Halperins would create a 1936 sequel called “Revolt of the Zombies,” but it lacked the panache of the original. Tobe Hooper talked about a remake in 2009, but nothing came of that. In 2017, the award-winning writer Brad A. Braddock authored “Memoirs of Murder: A Prequel to White Zombie.” For aspiring filmmakers in search of a great property, I would strongly recommend securing the rights to Braddock’s imaginative work, which traces the journey of Murder Legendre prior the “White Zombie” story. Of course, the challenge of finding a contemporary actor to capture Lugosi’s magic as the voodoo master is a serious issue – but we can debate that in another column.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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