"For you, my friend, they are the angels of death!"
- White Zombie review by Count Otto Black
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You rated this film: 4
Remember that bit in Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" where Ed and Bela Lugosi are watching one of Bela's old movies on TV? It was this one, and they made an excellent choice, because it's one of the weirdest and most atmospheric horror films of the thirties.
Every nation's pet monsters reflect its deepest fears, and in Haiti, they came up with zombies because the worst fate they could imagine was slavery that you couldn't escape even in death. Cinematic zombies have changed quite a bit since then, but here we see the original kind, menacing yet pathetic robots utterly devoid of will, but with just enough soul left to understand the horror of their situation. The sugar mill scene, where a black zombie workforce with utter despair etched on their faces work endlessly for a white master, is truly horrifying, and includes one very nasty moment which must have come as quite a shock to audiences in 1932. It's also surprisingly politically correct for its time. We're spared the usual "funny" black sidekick, the locals are shown from the beginning to have very good reasons to be superstitious and terrified, and we briefly meet an elderly black voodoo practitioner who even the white Christian priest admits is a good guy.
Essentially, this is a filmed nightmare. Almost every significant character is for at least part of the film helplessly trapped by terrifying and completely irrational forces they can't comprehend, let alone fight. People are literally paralyzed while terrible, inescapable doom approaches. And despite the location being Haiti, Bela Lugosi somehow lives in a surreal gothic mansion straight out of Edgar Allen Poe. Bela himself is both extraordinarily memorable and one of the film's weaknesses, because, even by his usual standards, he's hammier than a pork butchers' convention, and his character (whose name seems to be Murder) is almost literally a pantomime devil; all he's missing are the horns, tail and pitchfork. Sometimes he comes across as truly evil, but too often he's so far over the top that he's impossible to take seriously. And it does meander a bit at times, especially when the romantic elements of the plot predominate. But overall it's an extraordinary film owing far more to German Expressionism than the usual Hollywood conventions, and is in many ways better than the creaky old version of "Dracula" for which Lugosi is best known.
Unfortunately, the DVD I was sent was a cheap and lazy conversion of what was obviously a very old print, and the worn-out celluloid has been mended so often that the soundtrack skips oddly. But it's still a splendidly weird movie, and there may be better copies out there. Hammer kinda sorta remade this in 1966 as "The Plague of the Zombies".