Landmark but not classic horror featuring a recently famous Lugosi fails to live up to its reputation but provides a diverting enough 70 minutes. Lugosi made this directly after Dracula (partly using the same sets) and his performance is already typical of much of the remainder of his career. As the evil hypnotist Legrende, who uses happens to use zombies to do his bidding, he spends much of his screen time staring, grimacing and wringing his hands. Such physical ticks result in those around him mindlessly obeying - but there isn't any master plan - he just seems to have lots of zombies working the land for him. Into his Haitian retreat come a young socialite couple who have, rather bizarrely, chosen Haiti as their preferred place of marriage. More particularly, the creepy if rather large home of sinister playboy Monsieur Beaumont - who they met on a cruise. So instead of having her father give her away, Madeleine Short Parker (Madge Bellamy) instead opts for the leering would-be suitor, who even has the audacity to try and talk her out of it as he walks her up the aisle.
A period mixture of melodrama and horror, White Zombie takes its place in history largely for reasons of trivia than content. It lays claim to being the first film about zombies (not sure if that's entirely accurate but short of spending several days researching the validity of that statement, I'm prepared to take it on face value). I suspect few at the time would realise what a huge genre the zombie movie would become many decades later. So credit for being there first at least.
Famously, Lugosi was reportedly only paid $800 for his efforts (and this on the back of Dracula - jeez - what sort of agent did this guy have? The word 'clueless' springs to mind.) Sets were recycled from various other projects - the production literally utilising whatever was left lying around the studio lot. So thanks to Dracula, Frankenstein and others of that ilk, the production at least looks good - particularly Legrende's mansion. Many of the film's weaknesses stem from it being a product of its time, but this is unnecessarily hampered by the melodramatic elements, some weak acting and a less than credulous script. Val Lewton was far superior at this kind of thing and by comparison this pales witheringly alongside all of Lewton's output during the following decade. 5/10
Rob Dyer (November 2005)
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Plague of the Zombies, The
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A-Z of Film Reviews