Engaged couple Neil Parker (John Harron) and Madeline (Madge Bellamy) make a trip to Haiti where they plan to wed. They are invited to hold the ceremony at the plantation home of a worldly traveler named Charles Beaumont (played by Robert Frazer). The innocent couple unwittingly walks into the mysterious man’s trap. Little do they know that Beaumont is secretly in love with the beautiful Madeline.
Beaumont plots to steal Madeline from Neil with the aid of Legendre, a villain who runs his plantation with the aid of zombies who obey his every command. Legendre traps Madeline’s soul within a wax sculpture bearing her likeness. Beaumont’s conscience gets the better of him and wants out of the deal, however, the greedy Legendre wants more souls and zombies to add to his army.
Neil Parker, with the help of a missionary, learns of the double cross and seeks to undo the spell of Legendre.
White Zombie is predictable, but with films of this genre, it is not only just the story that enthralls its fans, but it is the technique as well. This film delivers that and more. Halperin has created a subgenre of film that thrives to this day. With the staggering, slow gait of the zombies, it is easy for one to see the influence this film had on filmmakers such as Romero and Fulci.
The use of sound (or lack thereof) is a very important quality to note in this film. This seems to be more of a silent film than a “talkie”. There is very little dialogue and sound effects. The score is perfectly eerie. Punctuated by chilling screams, White Zombie is a film that makes the skin crawl.
To add to this, the performances are exceptionally chilling. Bela Lugosi was born to play Legendre. A year after donning the cloak of Dracula, Lugosi’s performance is an amazing follow up to the infamous villain. Sadly, though, his performance has been overshadowed by his role as the count and White Zombie is a mere footnote in his film career. Madge Bellamy’s role as the woman everyone wants is good; however, her transition into a zombie is an especially chilling performance.
White Zombie is a film that helps show where films such as Night of the Living Dead and Zombie have gotten their inspiration. The slow fading technique (which was the style at the time) is done well, but has been done better by its contemporaries. Nevertheless, this gem is a film that deserves more attention than it gets.