An Appreciation of Béla and White Zombie (1932)
They are not men, Monsieur. They are dead bodies… Zombies! The living dead. Corpses taken from their graves who are made to work in sugar mills in the fields at night.
Hungarian born actor Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó (1882 – 1956) is one of filmdom’s greatest treasures. When I watch forgettable Oscar-winning drivel such as Philadelphia (1993), starring Tom Hanks as a mistreated man with AIDS, my immediate response is that any garden variety Hollywood actor could’ve pulled off the role. Sean Penn as gay guy Andrew Beckett? Give that man an Oscar. Jude Law as AIDS victim Andrew Beckett? Oscar. Ed Norton? Oscar. Now, try and envision any other actor playing the role of Murder Legendre in White Zombie (1932). Lugosi carries the entire film. Proof in point —a limp Halperins’ sequel Revolt of the Zombies (1935) is just plain dullsville without Béla.
Disagree? Try watching Carlos Villarías’ performance as the Count in the Spanish-language version of Drácula (1931). Lugosi was the real deal. I can name just a a handful of actors with such a commanding and recognizable screen presence. Orson Welles had it (check out Touch of Evil or The Third Man) and so did Toshirô Mifune. Burt Lancaster also comes to mind and so does Robert Shaw (From Russia with Love (1963), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and Jaws (1975)), but these actors are few and far between.
Has Tom Hanks ever really carried a movie? Maybe that film where he worked for FedEx and he had a pet soccer ball. I have actually forgotten the name. Or that film about a box of chocolates —I guess (I much prefer Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983)), but my argument is anyone could’ve played those roles. For my money, give me Lugosi and the pre-code thriller White Zombie. Could Karloff have pulled off Murder Legendre? Probably, but he wouldn’t have been as menacing. Warner Oland? Maybe.
What makes Lugosi so special?
In White Zombie, Lugosi of course plays the heavy, a voodoo-practicing (by Hollywood cinematic standards) zombie-master. This film offers the first suggestion ever of zombie powders, which Legendre uses for evil purposes to his benefit. Years later, ethnobotanist Wade Davis confirmed that zombie powder and various geographically distinct formulations do exist in Haiti (Davis, 1983).
Lugosi is especially lean and menacing in the role, with curved brows and hair slicked back into a widow’s peak, forked Van Dyke-style beard and makeup appliance by Jack Pierce. He looks the part and commands every single scene he occupies. Whether Lugosi is playing a crippled hunchback, a mad scientist (see him as Dr. Vornoff in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster, 1955) a vampire, Frankenstein’s monster, an aristocrat (in Billy Wilder’s Ninotchka, 1939)(Tom Hanks as an aristocrat? Naaah), a cursed gypsy or a Nazi spy, he always played the role in character. He’ll ham it up from time to time (The Raven, 1935), but he’s always there —delivering.
To me, White Zombie is a notch below the classic horror films of all-time. It has a lot to offer:
- It’s the first zombie film ever made,
- It’s distinctly dreamlike, both in narrative and photographic composition (I’m not sure any of this was deliberate),
- The film delivers with creepy “subjective point-of-view” shots of the undead by cinematographer Arthur Martinelli (The Devil Bat, 1940),
- There’s a subtle but incredibly suggestive shot of a zombie falling into the rotating blades of a sugar cane mill,
- I like the use of West Indies percussion sounds or “drums of voodoo” and the zombie chorus,
- The sets and especially the matte painting of Legendre’s sea-side castle,
- A simple story-line, and
It’s also a bit slow. Film historian George Turner recalled seeing it in 1932, in Amarillo Texas, and described it as having “a definite silent picture [feel]” and later in life wrote that the film had “romantic and poetic qualities seldom encountered in motions pictures” (Rhodes, 2001).
The film is controversial and has an ardent cult following.
I think it’s Lugosi’s eyes…
Final note. There are plenty of crappy prints of this film floating about —Lugosi deserves better. Grab the ROAN Group DVD print (available through the Troma folks or Amazon) which looks to be in good shape and offers a commentary and some supplemental material.
Gary D. Rhodes, 2001. White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film. McFarland Publ. Co. 352 pg.
Wade E. Davis, 1983. Preparation of the Haitian Zombi Poison. Harvard Botanical Museum Leaflets, Vol. 29, No. 2.