White Zombie 1932 ***

whitezombie1932A withering indictment of the gig economy and zero hour contracts in the Haitian workforce circa 1932, White Zombie is a horror movie with a sociological point. This is not White Zombie the band, but the 1932 film, coming in at a hefty 25 quid on blu-ray, but a reasonable £2.50 on Amazon Prime. Victor Halperin’s horror feature is a fairly primitive affair, even for 1932, but it’s got a certain something about it that has reserved a special place in cinematic depictions of hell on earth. So just to be clear; this doesn’t match up to modern cinematic standards, unless you enjoy stilted dialogue, over-ripe performances and unknown actors speaking extremely slowly. But if you’re prepared to overlook the faults, there’s something bubbling up rather nicely here.

These aren’t just any zombies, they’re cheap labour organised by Murder Lengendre, whose name sounds like he might be a rapper but is in fact performed by Bela Lugosi in a performance so ripe that even he must have wondered if he should tone it down a notch. Murder controls the zombie workforce by holding his hands together in the zombie grip; in this method, he runs his Haitian sugar cane plantation without any interference from health and safety jobsworths. Along come couple Madeleine and Neil (Madge Bellamy and John Harron), looking to get married, but the local boss Charles Beaumont (Ronald W Frazer) has designs on Madeleine and wants her for himself. So Beaumont consults with Murder, and decides that he’ll turn Madeleine into a zombie and get control of her in this unconventional method.

This is, in itself, a neat story idea; Murder uses his supernatural power for an economic gain, but wires are crossed when the same techniques are used for personal or sexual motives. You can insert your own capitalism metaphor here, but there’s a reason by Tobe Hooper wanted to remake this film, and it’s because there’s a genuine potency in the idea. It’s true that things get a bit bogged down here before a cliff-top climax where the characters fling themselves onto the rocks with gleeful abandon as the co-incidences and contrivances pile up. And while White Zombie is inferior to seminal works by Val Lewton or Carl Dreyer, it successfully evokes a similar primitive, haunting feel; the sound of the drums and the images of tortured souls have gained resonance over the years.

Even the most subtle of Lugosi’s acting techniques can still be seen from space, and yet his big performance is the heart of the film. Halperin even experiments with a couple of camera moves and some strange visual juxtapositions; there’s a brilliant use of silhouettes in a key dramatic scene. So while White Zombie works as a horror comedy, since there’s many unintentional laughs, it’s also something of a key text for horror fans, one that uncovers ideas about male control/economic mastery that still resonate today.

Zombi Child 2019 ****

 

If you’re only going to see one film about black magic in a girls’ school, then you’d probably be best to skip the Suspiria remake and head straight for Zombi Child, a remarkably poetic yet properly horrific film from Bertrand Borello, whose Nocturama has become a cult item; he’s likely to increase his considerable reputation with this hard-to-categorise, highly original film.

The presence of real-life historian Patrick Boucheron, seen delivering a lecture on French history and specifically on the meaning of the revolution, is an early tip-off that Zombi Child is not one for the casual viewer. The history lesson is at a posh girls school, where the pupils include Fanny (Louise Labeque), who strikes up a friendship with and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) over a mutual love of Stephen King’s writing. Mélissa has a story to tell, shared with the audience in a counter-narrative about the death of her uncle Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou) who died in Haiti circa 1962 only to be reanimated as a zombie. Mélissa has a certain discomfort mixed with respect in terms of her own family history, but Fanny is keen to explore, leading to a climax that revitalises familiar horror tropes due to the careful work that’s led to that point.

Jump-scares, cap-doffing, in-jokes and such conventional horror-movie moves are entirely absent here; Zombi Child plays so hard and straight with the material that it’ll work for the art-house crowd in particular. But there’s enough frisson in the activities of Fanny’s aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) to draw a sophisticated crowd; the modish pop-culture references to Rhianna help keep Borello’s vision fresh.

The weight of the past, and of French colonialism in particular, loom large over Zombi Child, a horror film of rare intelligence and wit; the final scenes are frightening, but also satisfying, and the long wait for the pay-off is more than worthwhile. Screened at Cannes in 2019, it’s a smart pick-up for MUBI, who have this exculsively on their books from the 18th of Oct 2019.

https://mubi.com/films/zombi-child