For a while, I almost thought White Zombie was going to feature a good Bela Lugosi performance. It does not. However, it does feature one of the best Bela Lugosi performances I’ve ever seen. He plays a zombie master who controls his helpless zombies (who mostly do manual labor for Lugosi at his sugar mill–I think it’s a sugar mill–it’s a mill anyway) with his unibrow and by clasping his hands. White Zombie is short on logic.
However, it’s got a lot to make up for it. While the script isn’t stellar in the logic department, it’s pretty darn fantastic otherwise. The film’s premise–plantation owner Robert Frazer can’t have Madge Bellamy (her performance is occasionally too weak, but not often) as she loves ordinary John Harron too much (his performance is mostly strong), so he turns to Lugosi to turn her into a zombie. There’s a lot of angst, a lot of turmoil… especially after Frazer discovers he doesn’t like having a zombie girlfriend.
Throw in a helpful, zombie-hunting missionary (Joseph Cawthorn) and you’ve got a movie.
The biggest assets are director Vincent Halperin and set designer Conrad Tritschler–and whoever did the mattes. The film looks absolutely fantastic, start to finish (I was shocked to learn they used the Universal backlot as it looks so different from the Universal horror pictures). Then, towards the end… Halperin uses music to accompany a zombie’s actions. The zombie’s mute, it’s a silent film technique… it works out beautifully.