I thought I would take a little time out this week to look at a few of the classic zombie movies starting with 1932’s White Zombie. It’s a great example of how our grandparents viewed the zombie and how it reflected the culture of the time. The zombies in this movie are the deceased islanders of Haiti who have been brought back to life through magic to work as slave labor for a white plantation owner. The plantation is visited by a young couple who are about to be married but the plantation owner wants the young woman for himself and so turns her into a zombie through Voodoo magic. She being forced into sexual slavery, is the titular “White Zombie” or white slave of the film and the story revolves around her and those trying to control and to love her.
Take a good long look at the poster for the film. It’s a real work of art. The horrifying eyes and the grip of the hands. The physicality of the artwork and the craft, is incredible.
Like a lot of classic films, the black and white images and the low resolution of the film as it has come down to us creates an atmosphere of impending doom and dread. The lack of clarity, faces coming out of the dark, seemingly disembodied hands and faces looming around every corner all add to the horror. The stark contrast in lighting is actually a real benefit of older film making. You can say they don’t make them like they used to and boy that’s true in this case.
The heart of the film, the abduction of a young woman to work as a sexual slave is something right out of today’s headlines.
The staging of the story leaves a lot to be desired. A young couple in love arriving at a big scary mansion, cut off from the outside world and facing evil. Yeah. We’ve seen that before.
In the early days of sound recording for movies a lot of actors were coming from backgrounds in stage acting where their voices needed to project to reach their audiences. Plus the quality of the sound recording wasn’t quite what we have today. And just as importantly, the sound systems the movies were played back on and the projectors that were used were also a bit short of your typical IMAX experience. So the manner in which the actors talk to one another sometimes seems a bit unnatural and didn’t always leave room for much subtlety. It’s all the more impressive then, that actors like Lugosi were able to give such stunning performances.
Perhaps the biggest issue modern viewers will have with the film is the way it reflects Hollywood’s attitude to people of color at the time it was made. Granted not all of the zombies in the movie are black or even Haitian. This is probably a result of what actors were allowed to play on screen through the various acting guilds. As I mentioned above, the title tells us that as it refers to the most important zombie in the film, the young woman being turned into a love zombie by the plantation owner. The title White Zombie being a play on a white slave. So we can easily view the zombies as slaves. But the fact that the movie revolves around a cast of white actors in Haiti and gives barely a line or a nod to any black characters shows just how important they were considered in Hollywood. Take a look at about 46 minutes into the movie where a white actor in black face portrays a Haitian. Yikes! The black actors in this movie and indeed the haitian characters form a backdrop, they play servants and zombies, but hardly any really important roles.
You can watch the movie on YouTube here: