A 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.