Today’s Trillion Dollar Movie, White Zombie, holds the distinction of being Hollywood’s first zombie picture. It’s much different in tone, though, than contemporary zombie thrillers –achieving its chilling impact through atmosphere, rather than gore. Released in 1932, White Zombie has more in common with Universal Pictures’ horror classics of that era, beginning with its star, Bela Lugosi, fresh from his success playing the title role in Universal’s Dracula.
Lugosi made a monumental career mistake by appearing in this low-budget feature by Amusement Security, a small indie company. He only got paid $900, and because he was tied up with this role, he had to turn down Frankenstein, paving the way for the rise of his longtime rival Boris Karloff. While Frankenstein became a staple of the genre, revived often on television, White Zombie disappeared from view and, owing to legal complications, didn’t resurface again until the 1960s.
Too bad, because in White Zombie, Lugosi delivers the best performance of his career, truly a menacing turn as “Murder” Legendre, a voodoo high priest in Haiti who can raise the dead using black magic. He runs a successful sugar plantation and mill staffed solely by working zombies. But now he wants a bride, and finds the ideal candidate when the virginal Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy) arrives on the island for a planned wedding with her fiance. Instead, she’s spirited away by Legendre with help from a rich baron who also is carrying a torch for her.
White Zombie not only boasts creepy sets, but also many eerie Gothic touches — from the natives’ chanting to the shrieking vulture that’s always hovering around Lugosi. The fluid cinematography evokes the great Expressionist thrillers of the silent era, surpassing the static camerawork that prevailed after the first “talkies” hit the screen. Among the uncredited musical contributors was Xavier Cugat. Enjoy, and do return again next Friday for another Trillion $ Movie.
P.S. In case you’re wondering Rob Zombie did name his first band after this movie.