Truth to tell, I thought we were culturally finished with zombies after Zombieland, which served as both a brilliant deconstruction and loving tribute to the genre. At that point, to my mind, everything that needed to be said had been said. No one would go back to that dried-up well, right?
In no way have I ever been more wrong, of course. Personally, I’d like to see us move beyond the living dead for our horror staple (living dead beavers excluded, obviously). But as that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, being that The Walking Dead is destined to become this decade’s Law and Order/CSI-infinite-spinoffs-franchise, and since I recently enjoyed a White Zombie White Ale from Catawba Brewing Co., I thought I’d go back to the source.
White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi and released in 1932, is famous for being the first full-length zombie flick. And not much else; if you believe our country has descended from an idyllic, genteel past into an abyss of bitter snark, check out White Zombie’s entertaining Wikipedia entry and read the shade movie critics of the time threw its way. (And also that it was “one of the few American horror films to be approved by the Nazis.” So, um. There’s that.)
So how does the movie stand up today? Well. It’s either hopelessly old-fashioned or so modern it predicted the current cultural climate by eighty-something years. Allow me to explain:
The plot is relatively simple and relentlessly ludicrous. A young couple travels to Haiti to get married. (Because that’s what you do, I guess?) Their host, a wealthy plantation owner, is in love with the bride-to-be. He can’t talk her out of getting married as he walks her into the ceremony—yes, this is when he chooses to lay the woo on her—so he poisons her with a potion given to him by Lugosi, who plays a zombie master named Murder. Subtle! Naturally, this works out well for no one.
Take a look at the poster above. That line at the bottom: “With his zombie grip he made her perform his every desire!” Sounds saucy, right? Sure—if by “every desire” you’re thinking “makes her play the piano while staring blankly ahead.”
Now, you might be saying, “Of course this movie wouldn’t go in any of the perverse directions mapped out by the filthy Rand McNally of your mind! This was 1932!” On the contrary, my friend; if you’ve seen The Unknown, as this writer has, you know they were making jaw-droppingly perverse movies from the get-go. So White Zombie’s era can’t be blamed for the tameness of its plot.
But let’s get to the modernist take on this movie. That starts and ends with Bela Lugosi, a.k.a. Murder, who rocks some impressive furry caterpillar eyebrows and the stare of a man trying to pierce the veil of one of those 3D illusion posters. There’s a nice scene where he introduces his zombie slaves—his former master in the dark arts, a minister of the interior, the former head of the gendarmes, and so on. These are all good gets. You’d think a man who could zombify such eminent personages would have his sights set on world domination.
Instead, Murder has marshaled this unholy army of the living dead to . . . work all night in his sugar mill.
This is explicitly and repeatedly stated throughout the movie: zombies are created to work in mills or on plantations. What we have here, then, is a villain who doesn’t need his own Van Helsing so much as an Elizabeth Warren. So maybe White Zombie is less a foundational horror film and more an early, subversive rallying cry for workers’ rights? You can imagine the Haitian version of Occupy Wall Street piling up on the beach below Murder’s castle to protest his exploitation of the living dead.
That castle, by the way, is one of the great villain lairs. Take a look at this bad boy. I’m pretty sure the Koch brothers moved in back in the early aughts.
Hollywood has been rightfully derided for consistently making women helpless victims. And yes, the female lead in White Zombie definitely qualifies. But this movie takes a bold step toward equality by making her husband even more useless. At one point he literally swoons and faints on a couch. He takes absolutely no part in his wife’s rescue other than showing up so she can remember she loves him—though why, I can’t imagine. This is one of those movies where you wind up rooting for the villain simply because he’s the only character who seems to have any semblance of a personality or a plan. Plus, those eyebrows!