Perhaps one of the best-loved figures in horror cinema is the late icon Bela Lugosi. Although known for what many consider to be the definitive portrayal of Dracula in director Tod Browning’s 1931 classic, he also contributed to zombie cinema with the 1932 classic ‘White Zombie.’
While White Zombie is essentially a “B” film with modest aspirations (‘I Walked with a Zombie’ from 1943 is definitely a more textured film based on a similar subject), it is still impressive due in large part to Lugosi’s performance as Murder Legendre. He uses “zombified” slave labor work his sugar cane mill, but he also has an interesting sideline – turning people into zombies either because they have opposed him or at the request of others.
A jealous man pays Legendre to turn a woman he loves that is engaged to another man into a compliant “zombie bride.” He gets his wish as she lapses into a death-like state shortly after her wedding – after some grave robbing and soul searching, he begins to regret his decision.
Legendre is not a classic horror character, lacking the potential depth of Count Dracula. But Lugosi has fun with the part and renders it watchable. The supporting cast, which includes Madge Bellamy, are as good as the film requires. And it is interesting that the zombies, despite being the result of genuine magic, are apparently living people in a trance-like state.
It is difficult to avoid comparing any film from the period with ‘Dracula’ due to Lugosi’s presence. But even without him there are similarities from the “land-of-bad-things” setting to the ornate sets. There is even a Van Helsing-like character that opposes Legendre.
This film is recommended for anyone interested in Lugosi’s career, vintage horror films and “old-school” zombies.