Release Date: July 28th, 1932 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Victor Halperin
Written by: Garnett Weston
Based on: The Magic Island by William Seabrook
Music by: Guy Bevier Williams, Hugo Riesenfeld, Xavier Cugat, Nathaniel Dett, Gaston Borch, Leo Kempenski, Hen Herkan, H. Maurice Jacquet
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy
Victor & Edward Halperin Productions, United Artists, 69 Minutes
“I thought that beauty alone would satisfy. But the soul is gone. I can’t bear those empty, staring eyes.” – Charles Beaumont
Bela Lugosi is mainly known for his role as Dracula in the 1931 classic film by Universal. He’s also known for his work with schlock director Ed Wood and for generally being an old school icon of horror. I feel like many people don’t know about this movie, which is, in my opinion, one of his best.
White Zombie came out on the heels of Dracula and was immediately effected by distribution issues. It initially went through multiple studios before United Artists acquired it and got it out to the public in a wider release.
Critics, at the time, took issue with the ridiculous, over-the-top scenarios and the acting style that was more akin to silent films than the new talkies. Looking at it now, I just find it interesting, as it shows Hollywood productions trying to find their footing at the beginning of the sound era when they had been making silent pictures for so long. Also, the silent shooting style was still visually effective and the use of that style in this picture, created some of its more iconic moments.
This is a short but viscerally effective movie. It’s also damn cool and I love that even though the film has sound, music and dialogue it still resembles a silent picture in how it’s shot and how the actors react to the horror before them.
Speaking of the music, I love this film’s score from the voodoo chanting during the opening credits to the classical tune that makes Lugosi’s hand magic tricks work with added intensity and mysteriousness.
The acting itself is pretty middle of the road when looking at the entire cast’s performance, as a whole. However, Lugosi takes that same onscreen magic that he employed in Dracula and makes it work just as well, here.
White Zombie is a better old school horror film than the critics of its era would want you to believe. Frankly, I think it’s one of Lugosi’s best performances and one of his better films, overall.