White Zombie, the 1932 movie starring Bela Lugosi, was made by the Halperin brothers to reflect the aesthetic of the previous decade. It’s hard for us to imagine now that movies made in 1932 would feel too modern to anyone, but apparently the Halperins felt the “talkie” was the beginning of the end for Western cinema. For some reason that isn’t entirely clear to me, they made their own talkie in protest.
In all honesty that’s a bit disingenuous on my part – the movie does take great pains to seem like an artifact from a time that never really existed at all. It feels like a silent film with just a minimalist amount of dialogue, dressed up in Gothic Expressionist horrors.
An article on Turner Classic Movies notes that “The critics were particularly hard on White Zombie during its initial release and found it embarrassingly outdated and old-fashioned by current standards, citing the silent-era style of acting and Victorian era dialogue as examples.”
This is completely valid criticism – the movie looks and feels a great deal like a silent movie – the actors act as though they are in one, with broad, emotional gestures and expressions. The film even cast Madge Bellamy, a silent film star, in the female lead.
When Andrew and I recorded our podcast on the film, Andrew was struck by Madge Bellamy’s screen presence, particularly in a scene where, transformed into a zombie, she plays the piano with a completely blank expression on her face.
This scene is unreal and oneiric – not a scene you would find in a movie concerned with being modern or realistic. Instead, it highlights the methodology of this film – to bring back film into the real of the dream… and the nightmare.
White Zombie isn’t perfect – it feels slapdash at times, and they couldn’t muster up enough creative magic to cover up the secondhand sets and amateur or over the top acting.
But the general Weirdness of the script and the charisma of Bela Lugosi as the lead overcome whatever problems the film may have, creating an intense, expressionistic horror film of which there are few equals.