FEATURE: Shocktober - White Zombie

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here. Spoilers ahead!

White Zombie is a fairly traditional tale of horror from the early 20th century: Boy meets Girl, they get married, Girl gets turned into a zombie by nefarious Plantation Owner, Boy seeks Girl, Boy rescues Girl and they live happily ever after. Much of early horror fiction features the heroine getting kidnapped by the monster, who/whatever that may be and the fight to save her. It's the plot of the second half of Dracula, likewise Richard Marsh's The Beetle and so it proves once again here, allowing White Zombie to become a walking, talking colonial anxiety writ large across the silver screen. The moment in which the heroine returns to humanity and embraces her lover is a return to the status quo that the monster once threatened. White heterosexuality has returned and all is right with the world.

Early horror fiction is pretty much defined by this need to maintain the status quo, from the nineteenth century literary examples I just cited to White Zombie from 1932. The turn of the twentieth century was a period of massive flux and anxiety with modernity looming and no one quite knowing what to do with. In science fiction, this tended towards the utopias and dystopias of people like Aldous Huxley and H.G. Wells; they envisioned the benefits and pitfalls of socially and biologically engineered societies that could keep this status quo going (for better or worse). In horror, it tended to be something more microcosmic like said fight for the heroine. She represents the purity of a society moving forward, untainted by its more dangerous aspects.

In this film, it's the zombies that take on the monstrous role, or more accurately, their master, Murder Legendre (seriously, with that name, no one figured out he was probably a bit suspect?). Murder is played by Bela Legosi and although it's not one of his better roles, there's no denying the man gives good nefarious eyebrow. His dead-eyed minions, raised from the grave and set to work in the plantations, aren't entirely different to the zombies that now populate our cultural landscape. They are much more obedient and less bitey though, only arising at the behest of Murder. The film is probably the moment that the zombie really hit the mainstream, taking a creature from Haitian folklore and forever placing it in the wider consciousness.

Voodoo in Murder's hands is more the villain here as it seizes the heroine Madeline for the nefarious plantation owner Charles. She is due to marry her fiance Neil at his home, but the landowner decides he wants her for himself and goes to Murder to get her. Returning to that idea of the heroine acting as a purity symbol, Madeline is precisely that, clothed all in white throughout the film, even when she is turned into a zombie. Poor Charles realises that the zombie version is actually ridiculously dull and attempts to get Murder to turn her back and return her to Neil (who is gallantly wading to her rescue). 

The thing is... White Zombie just isn't very good. The acting's all a bit overwrought and the story is hardly all that compelling if you've read or seen other works do it better elsewhere. It also smacks of trying desperately to emulate the monster horrors like Frankenstein and Dracula, two films which are immeasurably better. It's there in the recycling of Gothic fiction plot points and in the set itself. Quite how they got Gothic architecture on to Haiti, I've not quite worked out. And although I will always consider the context of a piece of work before judging it too harshly, the colonial anxiety aspect of it feels a tad uncomfortable, particularly the depiction of the Haitian residents at the start.

Everything feels very simplistic too, from the one-dimensional characters to the rather dull way that everything wraps or clumsy attempts at metaphor; Murder's pet is a vulture. Geddit? There are some neat moments in there, particularly the early effects work that enables various characters to have visions of both Murder and Madeline at various points in the narrative. And I think we should be thankful for it bringing forth the zombie. We'll be seeing more of the biting blighters later in the month, courtesy of a certain Mr Romero.

- Becky

You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.

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