The nightmarish “White Zombie” (1932) starred Bela Lugosi as a mysterious plantation owner

By on May 3, 2019

The zombie movie craze seems like it’s been around forever — at least since George Romero‘s 1968 cult hit Night of the Living Dead — but it actually began way back in 1932 with Victor Halperin’s nightmarish White Zombie.

The venerable black & white horror film classic — starring hammy Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, who a year earlier had thrilled and chilled audiences in Universal’s hugely-successful big budget classic Dracula — is now streaming on Night Flight Plus.


White Zombie — occasionally favorably compared to another overlooked horror classic, Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer’s dream-like Vampyr (1931) — is notable today for the way it weaves together a story involving unrequited love, murder, body-snatching, grave-robbing, hallucinations and visions, witch doctors, and, of course, above all else, zombies.


This film unfolds with a story involving a wealthy plantation owner, “Charles Beaumont” (Robert Frazer), who has fallen in love with “Madeline Short” (Madge Bellamy), the fiancée of his banker friend “Neil Parker” (John Harron).

Beaumont offers up his mansion estate for their wedding ceremony and reception (he also promises Parker a job).


Upon their arrival on the tiny tropical island of Haiti — which is literally a land of the living dead — the couple learn that the Haitian natives bury their dead relatives beneath the dirt roads because the passage of carriages above keeps the bodysnatchers from unearthing their corpses and transforming them into zombies.


Meanwhile, Beaumont turns to Lugosi’s shadowy character — another wealthy plantation owner, named “Murder Legendre” — for his advice as to how to steal her away from his friend.

We discover that Murder is actually a mysterious zombie master who uses drugs to zombify the local peasants — and whoever pisses him off — transforming them into mindless zombies who slave away on his plantation/farm.


Murder gives Beaumont a voodoo powder, which he applies to a flower that he gives Madeline, and after she sniffs it, she slips into a semi-comatose state before the end of her wedding reception and dies.

Her buried body is later excavated by Beaumont, Legendre and several slave-zombies, but this is where this strange, necrophilia-dripping story takes a vicious turn — when Murder ultimately decides to keep her for himself — making it one of the creepiest monster movies of cinematic history.


The visionary ahead-of-its-time technical camera wizardry by cinematographer Arthur Martinelli — who by 1932 had already lensed more than forty films — adds quite a lot to White Zombie, with his tilted Dutch angles and great close-up shots of Murder’s menacing, searing gaze.


Director Victor Halperin should also be singled out for the unique inventive ways he made viewers cringe in their seats with a great use of sound (lots of loud creaks and jarring screams) and a trance-inducing musical score which re-purposed orchestral versions of classical works by Mussorgsky (“Pictures at an Exhibition”), Wagner, Liszt and other composers.

Read more about White Zombie below.


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White Zombie was inspired by a number of earlier sources, including William B. Seabrook’s 1929 novel about Haitian voodoo, The Magic Island, and also a Broadway stage play, Kenneth Webb’s Zombie, which premiered in New York City in February of 1932 (it closed after just twenty-one days).


That same year, Hungarian-born actor Bela Lugosi had met with the Halperin brothers — producer Edward and director Victor — about appearing in their independently-financed movie.

First, however, they had to deal with a lawsuit from Webb, who planned to make a movie of his own with the same title from a screenplay by Garnett Wilson, which, upon its many sources, drew upon Seabrook’s novel as well as Goethe’s Faust (it was later used by the Halperins).


Shortly after he’d appeared in Universal’s Dracula film — which arrived on theater screens in February of 1931 — Lugosi had wanted to star in their film Frankenstein too.

He’d wanted to play “Dr. Frankenstein,” though (which ultimately went to Colin Clive), but found that Universal producer Carl Laemmle Jr. had wanted him to play Frankenstein’s monster instead.


Lugosi was even makeup-tested, but it proved disastrous, and when he left the project that memorable monster role went to actor Boris Karloff.

Frankenstein proved to be an even bigger box office success than his Dracula had been.


Lugosi then agreed to star in relatively low-budgeted White Zombie.

He was reportedly paid somewhere between $500 to $800 to play Murder (a figure later disputed as much too low), but he was also allowed to re-write some of his dialogue and even direct a few scenes himself.

The Halperins — working with a $50,000 production budget — made every nickel count during their eleven-day shoot, filming at both RKO Pathé and Universal Studios, as well as L.A.’s Bronson Canyon.


They even re-used and re-dressed large, preexisting sets from Universal’s Dracula, retaining much of that film’s misty Gothic moodiness and atmosphere.

White Zombie was sometimes savaged by movie critics, who nitpicked variously about the poor acting by many of the minor character actors.

They even chastised Lugosi for the way he spoke, with his deliberately long pauses, which was exactly the same way he’d spoken and received praise for in Dracula.


Movie audiences ended up loving this film, though, which had a successful theatrical run after its release.

Audiences loved Lugosi’s character, and how the film had added zombies to the list of their favorite movie monsters, something which still continues to the present day (check out the great new Netflix series Black Summer for recent examples of fast-moving zombies).

Watch White Zombie and other movie monster cult classics on Night Flight Plus.


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.