One of the sweetest privileges of a school-year weekend is the Saturday afternoon movie. The advent of relatively cheap, boxed sets of old films has opened the realm of many forgotten classics for me. My wife recently purchased one of those 50-movie boxes of classic horror films for me, and I’ve been making my way through it weekend-by-weekend, and occasionally there is a gem among the tailings. Yesterday I saw White Zombie for the first time. Back in the days when Bela Lugosi claimed a faithful following after his trend-setting interpretation of Dracula, he played a voodoo doctor with the power over zombies in this widely panned movie. In these days of the Walking Dead, it may be hard to appreciate that White Zombie was the first full-length film about our undead friends.
With the exception of the always professional Lugosi, the acting in the film received a well-deserved trouncing. Interestingly, the “van Helsing” of the drama, the doctor who overcame the monster, was a missionary. White Zombie is authentically set in Haiti, and it is never made clear whether the undead are really deceased or simply mindless. But the goofy, pipe-smoking missionary is the one who defeats evil at the end of the day. As noted elsewhere on this blog, monsters frequently emerge from the dark realms of religion, and the zombie especially so. Today, however, the zombie is all the scarier for being secular, unaffected by God or human deterrent. Originally it was a case of voodoo versus Christianity.
In what is perhaps an unintentional irony, the character who comes across the most sympathetically in the film, apart from the fetchingly pouting Madge Bellamy, is Murder Legendre (Lugosi). The missionary wins out by dim-witted happenstance, while the character responsible for the actual death of the zombie master is a partially aware zombie fighting against his fate. It may be assigning far too much credit to assert that the film had intentional social commentary, but White Zombie has had an often unrecognized impact on what has today become the symbol of corporate America: the once humble zombie.