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Following his sucess in Dracula (1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), Bela Lugosi surprised some of his film industry colleagues by agreeing to star in White Zombie (1932), a low-budget production which exploited the country's current interest in voodoo. The Halperin Brothers, who produced White Zombie, were independents with no proven track record in Hollywood and they offered Lugosi a low salary for a week's work on the film (Reports vary on the actual salary, ranging from $500 to $5,000). Why Lugosi agreed to this arrangement is open to speculation. Perhaps he didn't want to turn down another leading role, as he did for the part of the monster in Frankenstein, a role that made Boris Karloff a star and his chief rival in the horror genre. Perhaps he simply couldn't turn down any offer of work or money. Whatever the case, White Zombie is one of Bela Lugosi's most distinctive roles and one that captures his mysterious, hypnotic allure.
As Murder Legendre, Lugosi is evil personified. He plays the owner of a sugar mill in Haiti who controls an army of zombie workers. When he becomes enarmored of a young bride-to-be (Madge Bellamy) who is visiting a neighboring estate, Legendre resorts to black magic to make her his own. The apparent model for this role and his dramatic interpretation of Count Dracula was a character Lugosi had portrayed in his first German film, Slave of a Foreign Will (Sklaven Fremdes Willens) in 1919. In it, he played a hypnotist with the mesmerizing power of Svengali.
Long considered the first Hollywood production to feature zombies, White Zombie was inspired by The Magic Island, William B. Seabrook's 1929 book on Haitian voodoo. The Halperin Brothers (Victor directed, Edward produced) also borrowed elements from Kenneth Webb's 1932 New York stage play, Zombie. (In fact, Webb tried, unsuccessfully, to sue the brothers for copyright infringement.) Besides the coup of casting Lugosi in the lead, the Halperin Brothers also hoped to revive the career of former silent star Madge Bellamy in the role of the female lead, Madeline Short.
The film was shot on the RKO-Pathe lot in Culver City and at Universal City. One of the sets from Cecil B. DeMille's epic, The King of Kings (1927), was used for Legendre's mountaintop veranda and castle interiors were assembled from parts of the Dracula and Frankenstein sets. The creepy zombie makeup was devised by Carl Axcelle and Jack Pierce of Universal who transformed Boris Karloff into The Mummy (1933) and other famous monsters. Another unique contribution was the innovative use of music arranged by silent picture maestro Abe Meyer. Some terrifically weird effects are achieved using native drumming, chants, and natural sounds. Even a Spanish jota composed by Xavier Cugat is used for one haunting sequence where John Harron (Neil Parker) pursues an apparition that looks like his bride.
The critics were particularly hard on White Zombie during its initial release and found it embarrassingly outdated and old-fashioned by current standards, citing the silent-era style of acting and Victorian era dialogue as examples. Seen today, White Zombie has the look of a gothic fairytale and can be viewed as a precursor to the works of Val Lewton with its heavy emphasis on atmosphere and sound. What most people don't realize is how much creative control Lugosi had over the project. His co-star, Clarence Muse, later stated that Lugosi rewrote, restaged and even directed some scenes making it unclear how much of the finished film reflects his influence.
Director: Victor Halperin
Producer: Edward Halperin
Screenplay: Garnett Weston (based on The Magic Island by William Seabrook)
Cinematography: Arthur Martinelli
Editing: Harold McLernon
Art Direction: Ralph Berger, Conrad Tritschler
Cast: Bela Lugosi (Murder Legendre), Madge Bellamy (Madeline Short), John Harron (Neil Parker), Joseph Cawthorn (Dr. Bruner), Robert Frazer (Charles Beaumont), Clarence Muse (coach driver).
By Jeff Stafford