Sunday, 15 December 2013

Review - White Zombie (1932 - Dir. Victor Halperin)

I've tried this 'Zombie Grip". Doesn't work.

I thought it was probably time to have a look at possibly the first zombie film, (seeing as though we're drawing near to the end of this mammoth season) and very different it is to the usual films containing our beloved flesh-eating chums we're used to. 

Charles Beaumont is in love with a beautiful lady, Madeline, alas she is engaged to be wed to another, a charming man called... Neil. As anyone would in this situation, Charlie turns to the local voodoo practitioner, the aptly named 'Murder' Legendre (Bela Lugosi) to sort the problem out for him. His solution involves turning Madeline into a zombie. Problem sorted. Time for tea and cake.

Not content with using minimum wage zero-hours contractors in his sugar mill, Mr 'Murder' uses his zombies to do all his sweet goods related work, in a similar fashion to The Plague of the Zombies. The zombies look the part with their white faces and gormless expressions but they're not much of a threat. (Bizarrely the best zombie acting is performed by Neil when he's had a few and he's staggering about in a graveyard.) Only in the closing scenes do the zombies cause any kind of grief when they try to push Neil off a cliff. (Blimey, you can't take them anywhere.) I was surprised at the amount of tension that I felt during that scene though. Slow moving zombies inexorably encroaching on the hero's position seems to have been a winner right from the very origins of the zombie species. 

Another scene that stuck in my head is one where Neil gets a bit depressed and tipsy in a bar. The other revellers are only represented by sounds and the shadows of them dancing. It's a surprisingly effective way to film a bar scene.

One aspect that surprised me about this film is the technical quality. It was only made in 1932 and yet the film makers had already cracked the use of wipes, split screens and matte paintings. (Amazingly the first matte painting appears in Missions of California from 1907.) The compositions are pretty accomplished too. The director often uses other objects the frame the actors, whether it's the lid of a grand piano, the gap between another actors arm and side, or a petal-like mandala pattern that has been cut into a balustrade. Both Madeline and 'Murder' are seen through this pattern, linking them together. Madeline also has the same pattern on her dress, not sure why, but the director obviously had his reasons.

Another surprise is the inclusion of a bit of saucy lingerie. Ooh cheeky. I wouldn't have thought they'd have gone in for any of that malarkey in the thirties.

Something that is not quite as accomplished is the acting. For the most part it is amateur dramatics time. Lugosi shamelessly hams it up, but the worst offender is Neil (John Harron), constantly moaning on and saying, 'Oh Madeline'. Mary's dad obviously took lessons from Neil before embarking on his oscar winning Eastenders performances. Sadly the acting is bad enough to bring down the rating by a couple of points. 

What you have here then is a fairly effective little horror film, with a foreboding atmosphere, that can be proud to have kicked off the zombie genre. Just don't expect anyone throwing up their guts, having their eye punctured or biting their mum's prize begonias.

If you like this you could also try:
The Plague of the Zombies, Nosferatu.

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