A year after the success of Dracula, Bela Lugosi found himself onscreen in another (though much more independent) feature which featured his piercing gaze at it’s best. Oh sure. White Zombie is not an excellent example of acting, most of it is your typical 30s low-budget ham. But…there’s a certain charm in this film.
One thing I particularly like is that the heroine shares my name, but a more relevant aspect I’d like to mention is her acting in particular once she becomes zombified. The lead actress, Madge Bellamy, was a relatively popular silent film actress. So her over-the-top gesticulating and posing is really a relic of the previous decade, and it’s very clear in this movie how drastic the transition between talkie acting and silent acting was becoming. Now I’m not criticizing the style at all, I actually love it…in a silent movie. Somehow when she’s this angelic zombie, though, it really works. I suppose it helps that she doesn’t say anything else until the very end of the picture. She’s rather like the ghost of the 20s, stepping through into the 30s to give a final good-bye to the old style in exchange for the new.
If you are a fan of zombie pictures, this is an essential…because it’s one of (if not) the first zombie movies. Not your Fulci-style corpses, but the old-fashioned voodoo kind. People seemingly dead, put into mental slavery through means of a devilish concoction and…if the lobby card up there isn’t a slight hint…the gaze (and I guess hands) of their zombie master.
The combination of some silent film style acting, the music, and the constant close-ups when Lugosi uses his powers…reminds me of ballet. It’s really quite beautiful.
Lugosi is great in this, in the way only he could have been, dastardly and disturbing. There’s no doubt the man had massive screen presence. Some of the pacing is slow, which is to be expected, but I think anyone who really loves the horror genre really needs to devote some time to White Zombie, if not from an entertainment perspective alone, then at least for the historical aspects.