Our next selection is White Zombie, a black and white film featuring Bela Lugosi as a somewhat dubious practitioner of voodoo for hire. It was shot over the course of 11 days in 1932. It is 87 minutes long and is generally credited with being the very first zombie movie.
The trivia having been dealt with…?
I really, really enjoyed this movie, despite the fact that it doesn’t deal with the undead type of zombie. They do, however, shamble like champions. My copy is a second hand video tape, so it’s a bit grainy and there is no closed captioning to give me a hand with the sometimes static-laden dialogue. Bear with me, please.
We open with a group of people gathered in a circle on a roadway. There is a great deal of singing, chanting and rhythmic drumming as the credits are displayed against this picturesque Haitian background. Some of the group have shovels, some are just scooping up dirt and tossing it with their bare hands. There doesn’t appear to be an actual hole, just this group moving and swaying to the movie orchestra.
All this bobbing and weaving is interrupted by the arrival of a coach, containing your stereotypical 1930s Hollywood movie star and his starlet. “It looks like a burial,” the Hero comments intelligently. The starlet looks confused and sticks her head out of the carriage to ask the driver what’s going on.
“It’s a funeral,” he tells her, thus proving that the Hero actually knows what’s going on and that the Fair Damsel is a bit dim. He goes on to explain that there are grave robbers in these parts so people bury their kin in the road so that the traffic dissuades theft.
The Fair Damsel settles back into the coach and the Hero laughs the whole thing off. They leave the burial and choose another road. It’s a pretty deserted road, actually, no one around but the creepy guy standing conveniently by the side of the road. The driver pulls up and asks the man for directions.
Why would the Hero, who is supposedly a resident of Haiti and/or his driver, not know where ‘the Beaumont Estate’ is? Haiti’s not exactly the size of Australia. And who stops in the dead of the night to ask creepy people by the side of the road for directions anyway? (I’m assuming that it’s night. There are lots of shadows and it’s hard to tell.)
Bela Lugosi The creepy figure slithers up to the carriage window and peers inside as the driver, instead of sensibly tearing off, hell-for-leather, sits there and stares at him in a puzzled fashion when he doesn’t answer the polite request for directions.
His name, no mocking required, is ‘Murder’ Legendre. The characters and the audience don’t know this yet, but you just know this is going nowhere good.
“So yeah, I was driving along and stopped to ask this guy for directions. Turns out they call him ‘Murder’ down in the village. I mean, what’s that about?”
M’sieur Legendre stares intently at the Fair Damsel, who has her hand to her mouth in approved Monster Movie Fair Heroine Fashion ™. The Hero sits at her side, looking properly alarmed. This goes on for some time and is eventually broken up by the driver staring off into the distance and proclaiming dramatically, “Zombies!”
This being a 1930s movie on a budget, we don’t actually get to see the zombies just then, but the driver is horror-struck enough for the rest of us, so it’s all good. With a crack and a flourish and a torrent of badly pronounced French commands, he gets the carriage moving again and they rush away, leaving Legendre holding the Fair Damsel’s scarf.
Ah! There are the zombies, all five of them. We finally get a good look at Legendre as he tucks the scarf away and I’d swear he’s wearing a Catholic Monsignor’s outfit. If this were color, I’d no doubt be shouting things involving the Spanish Inquisition and bringing out the comfy chair.
At any rate, he strides manfully away, zombies shambling obediently in his wake as the carriage rolls to safety. Ah, it is night. There are crickets chirping as they arrive at their destination. Everyone gets out of the carriage and the Hero berates the driver for failing to obey the speed and safety laws.
The driver tells him about the zombies and there is much scoffing at the credulous native and his belief in the living dead. I quite like the driver, he’s got an excellent flair for the dramatic. After his explanation, he points to a conveniently lit ridge where figures shamble and shouts, “Look, they come,” and takes off again, leaving the Hero and Fair Damsel standing both defenseless and clueless in front of the mansion.
As the Fair Damsel clings to her hero, a figure comes out of the undergrowth… and engages in pleasant conversation about native superstition. One of the neighbors, presumably. He turns out to be a medical doctor. As they discourse, the butler comes out and lets them all in, telling the good doctor that he is expected.
Waiting inside a flower-bedecked room (like you do) their conversation turns to Mr. Beaumont. Through idle banter, it is revealed that the Fair Damsel met him on the ship from New York, and the Hero was only introduced to him on the dock at Port au Prince.
The plot thickens as the Hero explains that he and the Fair Damsel had planned to be married the instant that the Fair Damsel set foot on the island, but that the mysterious Mr. Beaumont convinced them to wait and come to his mansion. Why? So that he can offer the Hero employment and make him an agent with his New York office after the service.
Because, as we all know, mysterious men who strike up shipboard acquaintances with feckless young things always have the best interest of said young thing’s fiancé at heart. Plus, you know, doesn’t anyone find this suspicious?
“I’m so glad you’re getting married to the woman who has just traveled all this way to be with you. Let me give you a job in New York and, of course, she’ll stay here. With me. I’ll totally look after her as I send you away to New York.”
The doctor seems to have similar feelings of misgivings and is muttering about how strange it all is only to be brought up short by the butler looming over his shoulder. He waits until the butler leaves and then tries to drop a subtle warning into the Hero and Fair Damsel’s ear. That doesn’t work, so he goes for blunt. “Get out as soon as you can.”
We know that this won’t work, because the movie would end very, very quickly that way.
Meanwhile, upstairs, the butler and Mr. Beaumont confer. We know that Mr. Beaumont is the villain, because he’s rich, has dark, wavy hair and is about 100 IQ points ahead of the Hero. The butler warns him that the doctor might mess up the entire plot, so Mr. Beaumont goes downstairs and is mildly sleazy, in a polite way, to the Fair Damsel and has the butler show everyone to their rooms as there comes a knock at the door. The butler ushers everyone upstairs and leaves Mr. Beaumont (after an exchange of significant glances) to answer the door.
This totally isn’t suspicious in any way. “My butler will show you upstairs and, in a startling reversal of roles, I’ll answer the door. Don’t mind me. Run along.”
The Hero reaches his room and goes to the window just in time to see Mr. Beaumont being taken away in a cart driven by a zombie. Not that he realizes this, as he doesn’t believe in zombies, remember?
[cue ominous music]
We catch up with Mr. Beaumont at a sugar mill entirely staffed by the zombies, the only sound being the groaning of the equipment.
Note to self: Don’t eat Haitian sugar, as apparently they don’t stop the mill even when a zombie falls in and zombie flavored sugar is not on my list of exotic foods that I must try.
Additional note to self: Bela Lugosi is an incredible actor and proves it in this movie. Go ahead. Tell me I’m wrong. I stand by my assertion that his portrayal of Legendre is awesome.
Mr. Beaumont is here to meet Legendre, who is two steps ahead of him in just about every way. It’s always a bad sign when the villain isn’t as dark, menacing and sexy as the wicked man who is supposed to be merely assisting him.
A bad sign that would be outlined in flashing neon, were this movie in color.
The plot is, naturally, to find a way to enslave the Fair Damsel so that Mr. Beaumont can keep her forever and ever and ever. He promises Legendre ‘anything’ if he can deliver. This is also a bad sign. This lesson is immediately brought home when Legendre leans forward and whispers darkly into his ear and Mr. Beaumont leaps back shouting, “No, not that!”
You’d think he’d know better than to extend an open-ended promise to a creepy practitioner of the dark arts while surrounded by his zombie servitors. I may have to reasses my earlier opinion of his intellect.
Mr. Beaumont attempts to back out of their deal, not very successfully. Legendre is definitely the man with all the cards. He gives Mr. Beaumont a vial and tells him that only the tiniest bit will make the Fair Damsel a puppet.
Though why he’d want a puppet when looking for a woman is beyond me, unless he’s after her because he wants to practice his ventriloquism?
Back at the mansion, the Fair Damsel is all made up, with her veil on her head… in her underwear. Shocking, you 1930s movie director, absolutely shocking. In modern terms, that’s practically stark naked and dancing on her dressing table.
As ominous drums start up beneath the window conveniently opened by the maid, instead of looking shocked and/or alarmed, the Fair Damsel merely expresses somewhat mild curiosity. The maid, sensing an opportunity to break into show business in a big way, declares darkly that the drummers are driving away evil spirits.
Now the Fair Damsel looks all worried. I think she’s got things a bit backward.
As ‘Here Comes the Bride’ plays, Mr. Beaumont escorts the bride down the long stairs, his arm tucked through hers, and indulging in an extremely tacky last ditch effort to get her to dump the Hero at the altar in favor of the man apparently giving her away. He’s laboring under the impression that she came all the way to Haiti looking for a better deal than the man she’s marrying less than an hour after throwing herself into his arms at the docks.
What part of, “I came to Haiti to marry the man that I love and live happily ever after” isn’t translating for him? Either that or they got a lot chummier on that ship from New York than either of them are letting on.
Mr. Beaumont offers her a flower, “Before I lose you forever” and she, being a nitwit, takes it, sniffs it and sticks it in her bouquet before joining the hero at the altar. As the good doctor drones on through the marriage ceremony, we will go check on Legendre.
Legendre is carving a candle into a representation of our Fair Damsel and indulging in much mysterious and evil behavior. He has a vulture which hangs around being mysterious and evil too. We will pause here to revel in the dark atmosphere of it all for a bit.
Back to the wedding dinner wherein Mr. Beaumont toasts the happy couple and much cute sweetness abounds until the Fair Damsel looks down and sees Legendre in her champagne glass. I guess tea leaves aren’t high class enough for Mr. Beaumont.
Elsewhere, Legendre plays with fire and his carved candle … and back at dinner, the Fair Damsel keels over. The Hero freaks out amid much melodramatic protestation and
clutching of the Fair Damsel to his chest.
The next thing we know, Mr. Beaumont is standing manfully by as the Hero watches the funeral procession wend its way off to the burial grounds. There’s something suspect about a man so eager to have your beautiful bride interred amongst his ancestors that he has her swooped off before the medical examiner arrives. I’m just sayin’.
After that touching scene, we switch to the Hero drinking himself into a stupor in a tawdry Haitian bar and seeing the Fair Damsel reaching out to him from his glass of cheap liquor. I tell you, tea leaves are definitely passé. Why bother with tea when you can see ominous things in your gin and tonic?
The Hero is definitely distraught and verging on batshit insane.
Meanwhile, back at the graveyard, Legendre has climbed back into his Monsignor outfit and is wandering the graveyard with Mr. Beaumont. Legendre helpfully introduces his zombies to Mr. Beaumont as his dead enemies and goes on for a bit about torture and death in an extremely dark and smug way.
Where did you find this guy, Beaumont? Dial-a-Sadist?
The grave robbing commences, helped along by the fact that they put the Fair Damsel in a handy crypt instead of actually burying her. The zombies take the casket and place it against the steps of the crypt before opening it, so that we can see the Fair Damsel clearly. Everything is brought to a dramatic halt as the Hero stumbles drunkenly through the cemetery, calling for the Fair Damsel. The villains, sensibly, pick up the casket and bugger off, leaving the Hero to discover an empty crypt. Fade to black with the Hero’s scream of anguish.
Sobering up, the Hero runs straight to the doctor, who is an intelligent chap. The doctor gives him a brief history lesson and counsels him that the Fair Damsel probably isn’t dead. There is a discussion of zombies, voodoo and grave-robbing which is mostly irritably dismissed by the Hero. The doctor is persistent, however, and the Hero eventually decides that the Fair Damsel being kidnapped and alive and brainwashed is better than the Fair Damsel being dead and goes with it.
Back at Casa de Beaumont, Mr. Beaumont is brooding to the tune of Zombie Fair Damsel’s delightful piano-playing. He joins her at the piano to offer her beautiful jewelry, but she simply stares vacantly off into space, playing her lovely music. He fastens the elaborate necklace around her neck and still she plays on.
Mr. Beaumont seems a bit confused, but apparently has finally realized that a beautiful, unsmiling zombie isn’t exactly a creature that can return his passionate declarations of love. As he expresses helpless regret and how he’s going to change everything so that she can go back to her life… Legendre appears and mocks him with the hopelessness of it all.
With desperation, Mr. Beaumont declares that it would be better for her to hate him forever for what he’s done, and at least be awake and alive to do so rather than keep her like this. The melodrama is so thick you couldn’t cut it with a machete. Legendre turns on the evil charm and suggests that they drink to this endeavor.
Note: Do not share drinks with creepy zombie masters. Especially when you used this same plot device to turn the girl of your dreams into a zombie with one of his potions. Of course, this is the same man who promised Legendre ‘anything’ so I suppose I was hoping for too much.
[insert more ominous music here]
Mr. Beaumont realizes that he’s been drugged and stares wildly at Legendre, horror in every line of his face. Legendre smiles and tells him that he’s not going to allow Mr. Beaumont to interfere with his own plans. “I,” he declares solemnly, smoldering a bit, “have taken a fancy,” smiling ever so sweetly, “to you.”
“He did NOT just say that.”
“He sure as hell did. Quick, to the internet!“
Rule 34 having been invoked, we return to the movie.
The butler is summarily disposed of by the zombies, screaming all the way, while Mr. Beaumont stares helplessly at Legendre, desperately protesting.
The Hero and the doctor, meanwhile, are out searching for a witch doctor, to the sensuous beat of jungle drums. They eventually find the object of their search, a somewhat flakey older man who doesn’t have the clearest enunciation. Between that and the quality of the tape I missed most of the dialogue between the doctor and the witch doctor, but the gist appeared to be that he’s too old to go cavorting after Legendre and his people are scared to death of the place.
And rightly so, if you ask me.
Cue shot of a huge, rock fortress perched atop a cliff and the tiny camp of the doctor and the Hero on the beach below it. The Hero is ill and lying in the camp when the peace is shattered by the hideous screaming of Legendre’s pet vulture. Ah, atmosphere….
The doctor leaves the Hero to rest and bravely sallies forth to beard Legendre in his lair.
Our Fair Damsel wanders out to stand on a lovely and distinctly gothic balcony, picturesquely attired in flowing white draperies. As she stares vacantly off into space, the maids gossip about how zombies never remember anything and how sad it all is.
I don’t buy it. If they were all that sympathetic, you’d think at least one of them would’ve managed to slip a note to the Hero. Then again, Legendre would probably find out and then you’d be down in the sugar mill with the rest of the zombies. I withdraw my complaints. Carry on.
There’s a great deal of cute camera work, screens scrolling back and forth as the Fair Damsel stares into space and the Hero cries her name, apparently able to see her posing picturesquely at the window despite being several miles away. As she wafts back inside (no shambling for her), he staggers off toward the fortress.
The Fair Damsel sits blankly in front of a mirror while one of the maids freaks out, declaring that they should run away. The other maid informs her that escape is hopeless. As they argue, the Fair Damsel rises with a flutter of her white draperies and wanders back to the window, searching for her Hero – who is currently staggering through the subbasement.
That all happened rather quickly, I must say.
Down in the dining hall, Mr. Beaumont is struggling against the drugs, while Legendre watches him with fond indulgence and murmurs sadistic things to him – doctor to lab experiment – as he whittles a wax figure to finish the job on the man. Mr. Beaumont can no longer speak, but he can obviously hear and comprehend. There is a touching moment wherein Mr. Beaumont pulls himself together enough to grasp Legendre’s hand imploringly, showing at least some vestiges of motor control. Legendre pats his hand and reminisces about how Mr. Beaumont once was unwilling even to shake his hand before going back to his whittling.
Did I mention just how disturbing I find Bela Lugosi’s performance here? It is deeply disturbing – in a good way. This is a horror movie, after all.
Half out of his mind, the Hero is staggering through the fortress and finally passes out, attracting the attention of Legendre. Leaving Mr. Beaumont more or less helpless at the table, Legendre investigates and smiles disturbingly. Reaching out with his creepy magic, he summons the Fair Damsel.
Mr. Beaumont is still struggling heroically and through blurry eyes, he sees the Fair Damsel reaching out to pick up the knife that Legendre was using to carve wax effigies with. Silently, he pleads with Legendre as the Fair Damsel goes to the Hero’s unconscious body with the knife.
She raises it, Mr. Beaumont clutches his chest, Legendre works his evil powers – she lowers it – raises it again, begins to stab downward… and a dark arm flashes out from behind a pillar and takes the knife away. The Fair Damsel flutters away from the Hero and down the stairs. The Hero awakens. Legendre is massively put off as she flees past him, the Hero in hot pursuit.
Fluttering diaphanously, she flees onward, finding herself on the brink of a cliff, swaying mindlessly, and there’s where the Hero finds and clutches at her, raving.
As he does so, Legendre stalks up behind them, greatly unimpressed by the Hero’s impassioned dialogue. As the Hero chatters with the unresponsive Fair Damsel, Legendre’s zombies begin to close in. The Hero pulls a gun and shoots at the zombies. Perched precariously on the edge of the cliff, desperate and impassioned, he blazes away….
Thus providing ample distraction for the forgotten doctor, who sneaks up behind Legendre and bashes him one in the head. Legendre goes down, the Hero trips, the uncontrolled zombies walk over the edge of the cliff and the Fair Damsel snaps out of it, finding herself face to face with her Hero.
There follows the beginning of a touching reunion as the doctor looks on, all of them forgetting about Legendre, who chooses that moment to regain consciousness and force the Fair Damsel back into zombie mode. The doctor and the Hero spy Legendre and give chase, only to be brought up short by what appears to be a voodoo gas grenade. As Legendre attempts to work his evil, masterful will, Mr. Beaumont staggers up behind him.
Note to self: When wanting to defeat a creepy voodoo master, one apparently need only wait until they are distracted and walk up from behind.
Mr. Beaumont lunges desperately and shoves Legendre over the edge of the cliff and loses his own unimpressive zombie balance, plunging after him. As the doctor stares sorrowfully after them, the Fair Damsel snaps all the way out of it and they all live happily ever after, the end.
I’ll freely admit to having been far more interested in Mr, Beaumont than in the Hero and the Fair Damsel. He was far more interesting and intelligent (strange deals with obsessive voodoo masterminds aside), and a bit less of a cardboard cutout. The part of the Fair Damsel could’ve been played by any store mannequin with equal results, and the Hero’s scenery chewing ranked right up there with the sort of performance you see during amateur hour at the local Renaissance Faire. If they’d twisted the movie slightly and played the entire thing from Mr. Beaumont’s point of view, I think this movie might actually have managed to become one of my favorites.
There are no stupid, time-wasting sequences trying to make us ‘identify’ with any of the characters. We don’t have to suffer through anyone’s pointless childhood traumas or crippling fear of certain shades of green. We’re not expected to ‘understand’ the villain, or empathize with the fact that his anti-social tendencies are all the fault of the public school system. We’re not expected to worry about the Hero’s attempted alcoholism or ever wonder why the doctor was going to Beamont’s place to hang out in the first place. The exact motivations of ‘Murder’ Legendre, the source of his nickname and what his overarching plans are have been left blissfully unexplored. Best of all, this movie is an obvious artifact of its time, in that nowhere at all are any political agendas, social commentaries or the plight of anyone not a main character addressed or even brought up.
This is a movie about zombies. More broadly, this is a movie about a couple of gormless innocents, a possessive stalker-type, a helpful wiseman type and a very, very creepy villain. No assembly or analysis required.
I don’t want to have to think. I want to watch zombies. Unless they’re in malls. I will grudgingly allow social commentary at that point, but not before.
I enjoy a certain amount of creepiness in my villains, and I think Bela Lugosi did a superb job. For a movie that puts the B in budget, I was more than merely satisfied. Then again, a modern audience, spoiled by things like color, action, unnecessary padding, deep symbolism and a special effects budget might not appreciate it as much as I do.
But this is my blog, and I’ll force my antiquated ideas of fun and villainy on you if I want to. Take that!
– Truth [Still rooting for the zombies]