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White Zombie at 90: The Horrible Origin of a Horrible Monster

The Dead Walk Among Us!

White Zombie Turns 90 Years Old This August

Ask modern consumers of horror pop culture to describe what a zombie is. The odds are that many would explain that the creatures are the representation of the living dead. Corpses that have left their burial grounds and walk the earth in search of human flesh for consumption. Zombie flesh is decrepit, rotting. Their minds and souls have completely evaporated. Such answers are accurate if the image people have in their heads is limited to that which has dominated the horror movie landscape for the last couple of decades. Zombie culture, zombie history, has much more meat on its bones, pun fully intended. Going back into film history and anthropology is terribly exciting in this instance. Case in point: 1932’s White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi. 

Yes, Hollywood did make zombie films 90 years ago. Only director Victor Halperin’s thriller may not represent what modern pop culture envisions as a living dead freak show. The variety of skin-crawling antagonists that populate the world of White Zombie and why they are depicted in this specific manner sheds light on the real-world cultural history behind zombie lore. Engaged couple Neil Parker (John Harron) and Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) arrive in Haiti for their wedding. The coach driving them to their destination is stopped by a mysterious posse led by Legendre (Bela Lugosi). He approaches the lovers’ window and gazes intensely into Madeline’s eyes, his stare devilishly hypnotic. He steals her scarf just before the coachman takes off. Terrified, the driver explains that Legendre was guiding a group of zombies, human bodies guided by evil magic. The American couple can’t be bothered to believe such claims. However, their stay on the Caribbean island is about to open their eyes to things they never would have conceived. 

Image: United Artists.

Legendre has mastered the dark art of controlling people’s minds, thus rendering them mute, slave-like beings who obey the sorcerer’s command. The harrowing adventure sees Madeline fall prey to Legendre’s mischievous machinations with the help of Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer). An American living on the island, he has fallen in love with her and wants nothing more than to keep her for himself. Neil must rescue his love and break the spell with the help of a missionary, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn).

This Isn’t The Walking Dead

The viewer’s initial encounter with the legendary creatures is the first sign that there exists more than one way to depict them. Their eyes are spooky, as if in a constant state of shock, and they lumber slowly, just like the monsters most people know. Yet they appear to docilely follow Legendre rather than aimlessly wander. Furthermore, they don’t appear hungry for human brain. 

What sort of weird zombies are they?!?

To better appreciate the unique quality of Halperin’s picture, one needs to merely watch on and, if curious enough, do a little bit of digging. It is revealed in a sequence during which Beaumont confesses to Legendre that he needs the evil shaman’s power to seduce Madeline, the zombies who populate the area are forced labour. Viewers get to see them work the sugar cane mills. None of them complain, there is no mutiny, and one assumes they don’t need any monetary compensation. Legendre has, in effect, concocted the perfect workforce. Slave labour with no opposition whatsoever. One of his minions is the antagonist’s former spiritual teacher!

Image: United Artists

Dr. Bruner, when explaining to a distraught John what exactly is happening, reveals that Legendre’s army of followers is not really dead. Their minds and souls have been taken over and rendered utterly docile and useless. With the correct poison, anyone can fall prey to Legendre’s Machiavellian ways. 

Root of Evil

What Victor Halperin and the rest of the crew do for zombies in 1932 is certainly different from modern interpretations. That said, it isn’t different merely because the zombie formula hadn’t been honed at the time (although technically that’s true, from a movie industry standpoint). 

As journalist Mike Mariani elaborates in this 2015 article for The Atlantic, real history informed what Westerners thought zombies to be in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The mythos surrounding the grisly beings goes as far back as 17th century Haiti, then named Saint-Domingue. Labour was often brought over to the French colony from African nations. Slaves toiled away under the harshest conditions, their lives and aspirations shredded to pieces. Suicide was a problem because some believed their souls would return to their homeland (most notably Guinea). Others retorted that no, even after death in the case of suicide, they would be condemned to roam the colonized fields like the walking dead. 

After the Haitians rid their island of the French in 1804, vestiges of the beliefs remained. Bokors (sorcerers) were people in voodoo culture who claimed to be able to take over people’s minds. Voodooism itself was a strange amalgamation of beliefs that came into being when locals defied the colonizer’s insistence that Catholicism is the land’s one true religion. When studied under that light, the zombie creature has a terribly sad, depressing history. He or she is no more than their body, for as a slave they literally have nothing else, not even their freedom of thought. 

Tales From the Islands

A real zombie
Felicia Felix-Mentor (photo credit: Zora Neale Hurston)

The source material White Zombie uses as inspiration is a book called The Magic Island by William Seabrook. An American journalist with a fascination for the occult, his travels to Haiti (which was occupied by the United States in the early 20th century) led him to learn about voodoo and zombies. While his accounts may read as exaggerations of what was really going on, the fact of the matter is that his time in the sugar cane plantations showed him just how zombie-like the workforce was. 

Another interesting figure to read about is writer Zora Neale Hurston. She writes about her travels to Haiti in the 1937 book Tell My Horse. The author goes so far as to claim she encountered a genuine zombie and even took a photograph of one. The subject, Felicia Felix-Mentor (who reportedly had been buried and declared dead), certainly looks as though she fits the bill. In truth, she was found in a local mental institution. Even so, an image is worth a thousand words. In this case, one of them is “horrifying.”

An Undying Legend is Born

As far as Hollywood productions are concerned, the iconic zombie monster is born in Victor Halperin’s fright-fest. The backstories of legendary figures are often complicated nuanced affairs. Zombies are no exception. What most people know them to be today in the early 21st century is a far cry from what they were thought of as 300 years ago, or even 90 years ago when White Zombie was released. 

That’s not to say that modern interpretations aren’t good, worthwhile, or don’t satisfyingly produce shrieks of terror. It could be argued that the zombie enemy and its origin is one of the more significant examples of how horror stories often function as social commentary. As depressing as it sounds, whether one is awakened from their grave by toxic waste or crippling under slave labour, both probably feel dead inside. 

-Edgar Chaput

Written By

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar Chaput has written and podcasted about pop culture since 2011. At first a blogger, then a contributor to Tilt's previous iteration (Sound on Sight), he now helps cover tv and film on a weekly basis. In addition to enjoying the Hollywood of yesteryear and martial arts movies, he is a devoted James Bond fan. English, French, and decent at faking Spanish, don't hesitate to poke him on Twitter (https://twitter.com/double_oh_Pop), Facebook or Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/edchap14/).

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