4 October 2001 | reptilicus
A lost classic that has finally been found.
WHITE ZOMBIE is one of those rare early talkies where everything fits just right. Rumours have circulated for years that Bela Lugosi himself actually directed part, if not all, of the movie. Having seen all of the movies made by the Halperin Brothers in the 30's this is deffinitely the best, but DID Bela direct it? There is a quality in this film lacking from all other Halperin films. In many scenes the technique seems to have been borrowed from German silent films and Bela did work with Edgar Ulmer in Germany early in his career. Also notice that WHITE ZOMBIE is essentially a silent film with key scenes performed with a minimum of dialogue . . .or none at all; a standout moment is when Legendre (Bela Lugosi) traps the soul of Madeline (Madge Bellamy) by carving, and then melting, a wax image in her likeness. All without a single word being said. Another key sequence is a montage of scenes set against the haunting spiritual "Listen To The Lambs" performed by an offscreen chorus. Notice also the scene where Neil (John Harron, brother of former silent film star Robert Harron) and Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) are talking. The camera starts out behind Harron's back and moves out. It moves in a circle around the room while the men talk and finally goes back behind Harron to end the scene; deffinitely an Expressionist Germanic touch! Granted the film has its flaws, Joseph Cawthorn's character is supposed to be to be a Christian missionary but he has a noticably Yiddish accent. Also for a film that is set in Haiti there is an uncomfortable lack of black characters. Clarence Muse as the coach driver is the only one in the movie! Two other alleged native Haitians are white actors in blackface! Madge Bellamy's bee-stung lips and eye makeup also belong back in a silent film. Weighed against the film as a whole however, these inadequacies are slight. The cast is quite good. Robert Fraser met up with Lionel Atwill in THE VAMPIRE BAT (1934). Clarence Muse met up with Bela again in THE INVISIBLE GHOST (1944). One of the zombies is played by George Burr McAnnan who had played the puritannical leader of the farm community that ostracises unwed mother Lillian Gish in WAY DOWN EAST (1920). Also look for Brandon Hurst as a creepy looking butler. He had played the evil Jehan Frollo opposite Lon Chaney's Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923). By all means see this movie! It is well worth your time. So did Bela direct it? Alas we may never know. Then again, in an interview given in the early 1970's Clarence Muse said he clearly recalled Bela directing a few scenes. So maybe . . .