In the opening scene of "White Zombie" (1932), sweethearts Madeleine and Neil ride a carriage through Haiti, coming upon a funeral being held in the middle of the road. The corpse has been buried in the road, their driver tells them, to foil body thieves. Moments later, the travelers cross paths with the mysterious figure of Murder Legendre, played by Bela Lugosi, and his posse of vacant-eyed zombies.
Despite rampant creepitude, the couple carries on with their plans to celebrate their nuptials at the plantation of Charles Beaumont, a guy Madeleine met on her way to Haiti. As Charles has offered Neil a nice job without ever having met him, Neil is inclined to overlook their host's increasingly inappropriate attention to Madeleine (though he makes some faces over it). But when attempts to woo Madeleine away from Neil fail, Charles resorts to administering the zombifying concoction he's purchased from his neighbor, good ole Murder. Soon, Neil is beside himself with grief, Charles is regretting having a mindless automaton for a girlfriend, and Murder is mwah-ha-ha-ing all over the island and making villain eyes at all and sundry. Good times!
Directed by Victor Halperin, the film is tagged by many as being the first full-length zombie movie. Here we don't have flesh-eating dead people, but rather victims of a combination of drugs and magic that makes them putty in a witch doctor's hands. Like its sequel, "Revolt of the Zombies" (1936), "White Zombie" is nonetheless a campy delight, worth watching for pretty much all of the reasons critics lined up against it when it was first released, including an outlandish premise made all the less believable by bad acting. There's also the star attraction: the brilliant, beautiful Bela, whose Eastern European accent is remarkably unaccounted for by the narrative, and whose villainous posturing as a witch doctor gone mad is all the more silly because of it.
Todd C. GreyTodd C. Grey, Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Utah, discusses forensic pathology and the film "White Zombie."
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