Another full review and another potential blasphemy for you hardcore zombie enthusiasts out there: Carlie takes on White Zombie.
It’s a very special movie.
As far as I know, White Zombie is the first zombie film ever made, which may be why I’ve seen it featured on Top Ten Best Zombie Movie Lists. It patently does not deserve to be there. Seriously, there are very few redeeming features to this one. Sure, it was nice to see what a pre-Romero zombie was like (before the 1960’s and Night of The Living Dead, zombies were all voodoo-fied and just not quite the brain-munching, intestine-chewing monsters we’ve come to love today) but appreciating the historical value of this film does not translate it into being a good film in any way, shape, or form. And it had such a fun tagline too, look: “Not alive nor dead . . . just a White Zombie performing his every desire!” Bam-chicka-wow-wow, right?
Er, not exactly. This movie was made in the 1930’s, and it’s very clearly a transitional movie between silent films and talkies. That is to say, it’s bad. It’s really bad. Nobody can act; the sound is crap; there are a lot of these awesome unintentional jump cuts, and the hero is possibly more useless than the heroine. It’s ridiculous. This guy does nothing but moan a lot, drink, pass out at completely inconvenient times, and call out for Madeline, his beloved. As for Madeline, our White Zombie . . . well, let’s just say that the only difference between her being alive and being undead is that she can talk when she’s alive . . . and that’s not exactly what I’d call an improvement.
All in all, the best work in this film is definitely done by Bela Lugosi’s unibrow.
*Massive spoilers ahead. Although, really, the movie was made 78 years ago. What’s the statute of limitations on Spoiler Alerts?*
So, here’s the plot: Madeline and John are in luv, and they want to get married. No place seems more romantic than some random dude’s plantation in Haiti where the dead are supposedly coming to life. The random dude’s name is Beaumont, and sadly, he is suffering from what English students commonly refer to as unrequited love, i.e., he has the hots for Madeline. To win her over, Beaumont conspires with the local zombie master, Murder Legendre (I’m not even making that shit up) so that Mad can be his little love slave. To his credit, Beaumont does have some reservations about this unholy plan, but when his last ditch effort to woo her fails (he tries to get her to run away with him as he’s walking her down the fucking aisle, like, dude, this boy’s got BALLS) he goes through with poisoning Madeline so that Murder Legendre can turn her into a zombie. John, along with a friendly helpful doctor who’s really nothing like Van Helsing at all, tries to get Madeline back. That’s about the thick of it.
It’s sad, really. This movie could have been awesome cheesy fun (like the original Frankenstein, for instance) but instead, it just drags on, an incredible feat for a movie that’s only 74 minutes long. Each scene seems to take a ridiculous amount of time, because we clearly haven’t mastered the process of editing yet. There’s this great point in the film where Zombie Madeline is standing on the balcony of The Castle of Doom, and John the Useless is passed out maybe a half mile away, and, somehow, they sense each other’s presence (because they’re in LUV, remember). This fabulous luv connection is demonstrated through a crazy ass diagonal split screen and maybe five wipes in under two minutes. It makes George Lucas’s transitions look fucking subtle.
There’s also just tons of stuff about White Zombie that doesn’t really make sense. For instance, is Madeline actually undead? Murder Legendre says she is, and the promo material certainly believes it, but helpful Van Helsing thinks its about drugs and science and possibly a magic spell that keeps her brain from functioning properly? I don’t know. She’s not really dead; she’s just . . not exactly with it? The movie never gives a definitive explanation, so it’s hard to know if the first zombie movie of all time is even about the undead at all, or just uber brainwashed people. If only the confusion ended there.
To really understand the insanity that happens in this film, let me run you through the last twenty minutes of the movie or so. Remember John the Useless, sensing his undead bride? Well, he gets up and decides to stagger to her aid . . . though exactly why he’s staggering is anyone’s guess. Possibly he was drinking between scenes? Maybe the character’s supposed to be physically sick? I’m thinking Poor John was simply heartsick at the thought of losing his beloved wife, and this emotional toil made him weak, exhausted, near the point of death and unable to go on any further . . . did I mention John was fucking useless?
Anyway, this is when we have the random ten minute silent scene. John stumbles into the castle, passes out for no apparent reason, and is quickly found by Murder Legendre. Murder orders Madeline to kill John the Useless by raising his unibrow in a menacing manner and doing this weird claspy thing with his hands . . . kind of like Liu Kang and Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat, you know, all cast your might. Actually, that’d be kind of cool, except that Lugosi uses this exact same hand gesture about eight times in eight minutes, and the shot gets a little old.
So does Madeline kill John the Useless? You will be shocked, I’m sure, to find out that this is not the case. She’s about to kill him, falters (presumably, some part of her recognizes him or something, because they’re still in luv, dammit) and then is about to kill him again when a hand touches her wrist, stopping her. She turns around to find . . . no one. THERE IS NO ONE FUCKING THERE. I mean, I guess it must be Van Helsing, because there’s no one else around, and the person who touches Mad is wearing big long sleeves like Van Helsing’s wearing, but then he just . . . what? Disappears? I wasn’t aware that being the helpful doctor/plot device gave you powers of invisibility. Neat trick.
Also a neat trick: one touch from Van Helsing will stop a zombie’s murderous rage and have her fleeing outside to look at the ocean, no matter how many crazy hand gestures or unibrow raises Bela Lugosi makes. When did Van Helsing become Ultimate Zombie Lord again? You got me, but it’s a good thing, because the ending wouldn’t be so happy without it.
This is basically how the ending goes:
First: John the Useless says some stupid things like, “What’s the matter?” to his zombie bride (like, “Oh, I don’t know, I’m a ZOMBIE”) and “Who are you?” to Murder Legendre (really? He’s clearly the bad guy. What do you need, his godamned resume?)
Second: John is surrounded by zombies trying to push him off a cliff. (Including one awesome henchman zombie, who looks like a scary circus freak with eyes as big as my head.)
Third: Van Helsing saves John’s ass again by sneaking in and knocking Murder Legendre out. He tells the other zombies to jump off the cliff and they do so because . . . they just needed some discipline in their life? Thank you, plot contrivance!
Fourth: Madeline seems to come alive and smiles for a minute at John, but oh no! Murder Legendre is back and calling his last zombie, Beaumont. (Beaumont’s more like a zombie in progress; he tries to grow a conscience earlier in the film and stupidly drinks Lugosi’s poison as a result . . . think about that, the next time you want to do the right thing.) Beaumont is clearly supposed to kill the others, but wait! He’s not a full zombie yet, and he still wants to do good, so he pushes Murder off the cliff instead and then either leaps in himself out of that pesky guilty conscience or he trips. I’m honestly not sure.
Five: Madeline comes alive for real and Van Helsing sums everything up with an oh-so-funny joke.
Why John was even in the film, I honestly don’t know.
Here’s the thing about White Zombie: it’s exactly the kind of film that ought to get remade. I mean, if you’re going to redo movies at all, why not remake a flick that’s got a certain amount of potential which is almost entirely lost to the crappy period in film history in which it was made? After all, zombies are pretty big right now, almost as big as glittery vampires. Changing it up again and bringing the voodoo zombie back could be intensely creepy . . . the genre needs to move forward at points, or it dies. Plus, I desperately want to redo the scene where John finds Madeline’s crypt empty, if only to have The Zombies bust in with their version of “She’s Not There” for the pivotal moment.
And it’s got other stuff to work with, not just the creepy sex slave stuff. I mean, the zombies are being used to work in the fields . . . at a plantation . . . for a rich white man . . . must I say more? The themes are there. Clearly, the heroes need to be rewritten, preferably so they have personalities and possibly even a sense of humor. The villain probably shouldn’t do the majority of his acting through extreme eye close ups and evil laughter. And yes, down with the random screeching vultures, cause those things are just fucking annoying. But if you do this and fix a few of the plot holes, you got yourself a decent movie. I’d see it.
Ultimately, there’s really only one moral lesson to be learned from White Zombie: don’t decide to hold your wedding in some guy’s house you barely even know, especially not in a foreign country with possibly undead people walking around. Cause one second the host is creepily eyeing your bride-to-be, and the next she’s in a zombie master’s thrall and you’re just some loser who can’t even stagger in a drunken fashion convincingly.
White Zombie Grade? D.