“We’ve uncovered sins the Devil would be afraid of.”
I have never called a classic film awesome. When I talk about new films I that I really like I will use the word awesome to describe them. But I have never once used that word to describe a classic film. I love and adore them but not one has struck as awesome. That is until I saw the 1932 film White Zombie.
Madeline and Neil are a young couple traveling through rough roads in a Caribbean island by stagecoach. As they are traveling the driver stops because there is a funeral happening. The diver tells the couple that the funeral is for a man who had stolen bodies and now he is being buried in the road. A few moments later they come upon someone on the road. The driver becomes scared when he realizes the people walking toward the coach are zombies. One of the figures is not a zombie. He walked up to the coach and took Madeline’s scarf.
Madeline and Neil arrive at the house of a man named Beaumont. Beaumont had been on a boat with Madeline and he fell in love with her. Unfortunately she was in love with Neil not Beaumont. Despite being rejected he has allowed Neil and Madeline to get married in his mansion on the island. Another guest of Beaumont’s, a Dr. Bruner, tells Neil and Madeline that they should not be there that they should leave immediately. Beaumont seems crazy. He has the appearance of an eccentric man stuck in a science lab for way too long. He tells his butler that his life will suffer if he cannot have Madeline there. Beaumont then asks if another guest has arrived and when he hears that the guest has not he comments that they are a day late.
The following day Beaumont goes to a mill where actual zombies work. The mill is run by an odd scary man named Legendre (Bela Lugosi). Beaumont longs to have Madeline in his life and Legendre can help but when Legendre tells Beaumont what he has to do Beaumont becomes frightened. All he has to do is put a small drop from a liquid vial onto anything Madeline is to touch or anything she is to drink.
On the day of the wedding Beaumont confesses to Madeline how much he loves her and wants to marry her. She does not want to marry him. When he gives her a flower the butler goes to send word to Legendre who is waiting outside the house. The zombie wrangler lights a candle he has whittled into a specific shape and placed a cloth around. At dinner Madeline and Neil play a bit of a game. She looks into a cup and gives a fortune. When she looks down at the cup she sees Legendre’s face. Outside Legendre burns the candle in the lamp. Madeline tells Neil and Beaumont she can see death and then collapses.
Madeline’s body is placed in a crypt. Neil is beside himself and drinks heavily in a local bar. He hallucinates seeing Madeline all around him and ruins to shadows of people dancing and sitting in the bar. In his delirious drunken state Neil runs out of the bar to cemetery. Beaumont and Legendre are at the crypt to retrieve Madeline’s body. Beaumont wants to be with Madeline forever and he figured the only way he could is if she were to die and come back.
Neil finds Madeline’s body has been stolen. When he sobers up a bit he goes to Dr. Bruner. The doctor informs Neil that her body was either stolen for her bones for a certain ritual or she was never dead to begin with.
Back at the house, Legendre has brought Madeline back from her death. But she is not the Madeline that Beaumont had been hoping for. She is a woman with a blank face and stares off into the distance. Legendre had never planned to give Madeline to Beaumont. He poison’s Beaumont’s drink with the same liquid that had been given to Madeline.
Even in a zombie state Madeline is restless. It is as though she can sense something or someone is missing in her life. Neil can see her from a beach. He is still recovering from his heavy drinking and stumbles toward Beaumont’s house. Neil is captured by one of Legendre’s zombie men and placed on a couch. Legendre commands Madeline to kill Neil but she somehow defies the command and runs away. Madeline runs outside and Neil and Legendre follow. He commands Madeline to jump off the cliff but again there is something in her telling her not to. Dr. Bruner, who had been taken away earlier, comes up behind Legendre and hits the man over the head. When Legendre is knocked out Madeline, the true Madeline with life in her, returns. The moment Legendre wakes up and takes Madeline over again. Beaumont has been in the house ill from the poison and the transformation. He comes just in time to throw Legendre off the cliff and command the zombies to follow.
White Zombie was truly awesome. The story was fascinating to me because there is not a lot of detail. There is little to no background on any of the major characters you are left to fill in the gaps yourself or to create your own story. The direction by Victor Hugo Halperin was phenomenal especially in the bar scene where Neil is drunk. I could not get over the shadows on the wall they added so much to the scene. The shadows almost acted like an add on to Neil’s depression and spiral into insanity. They were in the background to remind him and us of the love that he lost. Another scene that I thought was brilliantly filmed was when Madeline’s coffin being placed into the crypt. It is a shot that has been seen over and over in film where a coffin is placed in the wall but it was somehow different here. I did not focus on the coffin so much as I focused on the faces looking into it. The same goes for when the coffin was taken out my Legendre’s zombies I was focusing on their faces and their actions. White Zombie is a classic film I highly recommend seeing. You do not even need to have an appreciation for classic films to enjoy White Zombie. To me it is timeless and awesome in so many ways.