Tall, Dark, and Dead – 1 – White Zombie
Title: White Zombie
Director: Victor Halperin
Leads: Bela Lugosi
Madeline: Driver, who were those men we saw?
Coach Driver: They are not men, madame. They are dead bodies!
Thoughts: Anyone else have ‘More Human Than Human’ in their heads? Anyone?
I decided that I’d better tackle a venerable, well-respected zombie film for my first entry. (Angry and Moist: An Undead Chronicle can wait.) Unfortunately, I feel I’ve nothing new to say about White Zombie that hasn’t already been said, and quite eloquently, by many other people.
What I enjoy most about older movies (especially silents and early talkies) is that they make me feel like I am actually unpacking and studying a text as I watch them – like I’m sitting on a parlor floor flipping through a picture book.White Zombie offered me many such moments. The scene where Madeline, upon hearing drums meant to drive off evil spirits, orders her maid to close the doors and shut out the sound was a minute crammed with a lot of meaning. I live for stuff like that.
White Zombie is usually cited as The Example of a story centered around “pure voodoo” zombies. Thus, in the film, the origin/condition of the zombies is naturally ambiguous. While the plot includes plenty of voodoo rituals and symbolism, it could also be argued that the “potion” that Legendre offers Beaumont is simply a plain ol’ non-magical chemical compound. In addition, Dr. Bruner speaks at length about the fact that the zombies (which have been almost universally described as dead bodies up to that point) are actually living people with brain damage. He even cites Haitian law, which recognizes the fact that occasionally people are buried alive. I find the ongoing debate (or perhaps confusion) about whether religion or science is ultimately accountable for walking dead folks to be a fascinating part of zombiedom.
The zombies themselves are portrayed as impassive, mindless, soulless slaves. The overarching theme is one of utter mental and physical control. There are a few moments, however, where the zombies get to shine. I absolutely love the scene where Madeline plays the piano. She has an almost doll-like quality to her…she reminds me of Carl Tanzler and his infamous corpse bride. Insert your own necrophilia joke here.