Neil Parker (John Harron: BEHIND THE CURTAIN, EYES OF MYSTERY, THE MURDER IN THE MUSEUM) and his fiance Madeline (Madge Bellamy: CHARLIE CHAN IN LONDON, THE GREAT HOTEL MURDER), ride in a horse drawn carriage on the island of Haiti at night. About as good an idea then (late 19th Century I'm guessing) as it would be today. They are going to get married at the massive castle of Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer: THE VAMPIRE BAT, DAUGHTER OF THE TONG, BLACK DRAGONS). Madeline met Charles on the ship coming over to Haiti. Maddy is also way too naive believing that Charles is a "nice guy" who only wants to give her everything-she-wants because he is her brand-new friend. That says something about the sheltered life she's led.
Neil isn't too sure about Charles' intentions, but Chuckie did offer him that swell job in New York!
Along the way, their coachman (Clarence Muse: INVISIBLE GHOST, THE SOUL OF A MONSTER) stops for some guy standing by the road and asks for directions (why is this coachman driving at all if he doesn't know where he is going?). The man by the road says nothing but gives a lascivious glare to Madeline, reaches into the cab, and steals the scarf off her neck. Men come down the hill behind him, and the coachman hies the carriage out of there. He explains to Madeline and Neil later that those were no men coming down the hill, but zombies: walking corpses.
As Madeline and Neil make their way up the walk to Charles' outlandishly enormous castle on the cliff, they meet Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), who is also a minister hired by Charles Beaumont to marry a couple. By way of introduction, Dr. Bruner tells them that he has been on the island for 30 years. Neil and Madeline tell Bruner what they're doing there, and Bruner is immediately suspicious of Charles as any sane person would be.
Once in the house, Charles is enthusiastically ebullient toward Madeline and takes pains to remember that Neil is in the same room, Standing Right There. Neil takes a dislike to Charles but says nothing. Best to just get this night over and be done with it, and off to that swell job.
Once Charles realizes that Madeline is deeply in love with Neil and he can't change her mind, he goes off in the night to enact plan "B". With the help of the local witchdoctor, Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi: DRACULA , THE HUMAN MONSTER, THE DEVIL BAT, THE WOLF MAN, THE CORPSE VANISHES), Charles plans to either win Madeline's heart or take what's left of her.
As for Murder (seriously, a name like that? What were his parents THINKING?), he recognizes obsession when he sees it and allows Charles the truthful largess of walking away from his schemes if he knows what's good for him. In fact, Murder is bald-faced honest with Charles, knowing the man won't listen to anything but his own blind desire for Madeline.
Charles leaves the house of Murder, knowing full well what the vial he now carries will do ("Just a pin dot is all it takes!"). Walking Madeline down the stairs toward her wedding to Neil, Charles lays all of his cards on the table, begging, promising anything, until she insists that he stop. Madeline loves Neil and that's all there is to it. So Chuck slips Madeline a voodoo rufie and the next thing you know, Madeline is dead as a stump.
Or is she?
The godfather of SFX movie make-up, Jack P. Pierce (DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE WOLF MAN), turns Madeline as living woman into the replica of the era's porcelain doll complete with the Kewpie lips. He built Bela's expressions out of hair. Murder appears to have two halves of a mustache in place of a beard on his chin. Even his eyebrows look like a single mustache, enhancing his evil glare.
Director Victor Halperin (SUPERNATURAL, REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES, TORTURE SHIP, BURIED ALIVE) had Madge Bellamy play Zombie Madeline with smooth clockwork movements and a feminine grace that sets the Madeline zombie apart from the stiff, awkward movements of the male zombies like Chauvin (Frederick Peters: SALOME ). What's more, he brought out Charles Beaumont's weak character beneath the façade of confident strength. With such well crafted characters from a story also by Garnett Weston (SUPERNATURAL), it's John Harron's overly dramatic Neil Parker that makes this well crafted movie crack.
Bela plays Murder in an overly dramatic fashion too, but it works well with him because Legendre is a confident, powerful, and above all cocky bastard. He creates high theater with his face and hands, throwing his victims off balance while confusing his enemies. Towering and solidly built, the less natural he behaves, the more frightening and unpredictable he becomes. Who knows what the man is capable of? What will he do? What won't he do?
DRACULA, still in post at the time Lugosi shot WHITE ZOMBIE, had yet to set Bela and his portrayals in stone. Without studio expectations upon him, Bela was allowed to play a different character than his Count. And while Dracula is a better movie overall, Bela's Murder Legendre is far more sinister. Dracula had many weaknesses and was forced to build up a false image of power to protect himself. Murder's only weakness is the very thing he uses to prey upon others: his ego.
Murder is seemingly all powerful and invincible (even he believes it), and so can afford to be honest with his victims, telling them their deals with him will only destroy them. Murder knows obsession is deaf to reason or warning. For the super wealthy like Charles, who believe that anything can be bought with money, the attraction of Murder's manipulative powers is irresistible and must be had at any cost.
Murder's delight is hoisting people upon their own petard, gazing right in their eyes, watching for the despairing moment they realize, as their will fades and they succumb to him, that they brought their damnation on themselves.
So it's no mystery that Murder is intrigued with Madeline. She is the first human Murder ever Zombiefied who didn't have it coming: who was innocent of all knowledge of the machinations that destroyed her. What's more, he's dumbfounded that of all of his zombies, his control over her isn't absolute. Something of Madeline still remains inside of her. When he orders her to commit an atrocity, whatever is left of her will fights him and wins. Even as a zombie, Madeline won't soil her hands for another.
Too bad this was writer Weston's fourth and last movie, as it boldly hints at a writing career just taking off. Unfortunately, Weston's screenplay was ultimately based upon his own story which was plagiarized from William Buehler Seabrook's novel, THE MAGIC ISLAND. Willie didn't get any credit.
WHITE ZOMBIE is overburdened with flaws, especially in the acting. While Lugosi and Bellamy shine, they only throw everyone else's lesser talents into stark relief. And while the sets are mightily impressive, they are overwrought for their location. Seeing a magnificent Germanic castle on high mountain cliff looks as out of place in our knowledge and concept of Haiti as it would in our knowledge and concept of Hawaii*.
*And it's not like you couldn't pull off a magnificent Germanic castle on a high mountain cliff in Hawaii or Haiti or Tahiti. The world surprises all of us regardless of age throughout our lives. But, man! You try and throw a wrench like that at the audience, you better have a better reason than, "Did I mention he's rich?"
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