Sunday, November 9, 2008


And so we bring 365 Days of the Dead to a close with, ironically enough, the very first zombie film (or at least the first to use the word "zombie" in its title), the 1932 semi-classic WHITE ZOMBIE. Directed by Victor Halpern, this film offers little significance aside from being first, and stands today as a curio at best. Or maybe a treat for Bela Lugosi fans.

Rewatching the movie I surprised to discover how steadily WHITE ZOMBIE comes close to being great yet never does. I'm sure that can be ascribed to Halpern, who was making a Poverty Row quickie to capitalize on the box-office of FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA; it takes only a casual glance to realize that the film's strongest visuals are aping James Whale and Tod Browning. (One exception, of course, is the establishing scene in the sugar mill as the zombies toil into the night, unmindful as one of their own falls into the machinery; had there been more eerie set-pieces like this, it might've claimed a spot in the same league as those other terror titans.)

Though the films' considerable atmosphere still holds up well, even in the poorly-restored public domain prints available today, the same cannot be said for its story, which falls squarely into rickety melodrama. It's up to Lugosi with his Mephistophelean countenance and cadre of living dead to carry the picture, and the former doesn't exactly pull his fair share (then again, he was making $800 for a starring role, do you blame him?). And Halpern's direction is enough to make one a zombie, with his somnambulant pacing and long gaps between lines; even at 66 minutes, this thing could've been compressed by a third and not lost a thing.

Still, as low-budget films from the '30s go, it's not that bad. Perhaps anathema to today's zombie fans weaned on Romero's gut-chomping ghouls, it's an essential entry to the living dead cannon, and those who haven't seen it yet should check it out.

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