White Zombie is a 1932 American independent Pre-Code horror film directed and produced by brothers Victor Halperin and Edward Halperin. The screenplay by Garnett Weston, based on a book by William Seabrook, tells the story of a young woman’s transformation into a zombie at the hands of an evil voodoo master. Béla Lugosi stars as the antagonist, Murder Legendre, with Madge Bellamy appearing as his victim. Other cast members included Robert W. Frazer, John Harron and Joseph Cawthorn.
Large portions of White Zombie were shot on the Universal Studios lot, borrowing many props and scenery from other horror films of the era. White Zombie opened in New York to negative reception, with reviewers criticizing the film’s over-the-top story and weak acting performances. While the film made a substantial financial profit as an independent feature, it proved to be less popular than other horror films of the time.
White Zombie is considered the first feature length zombie film. A sequel to the film, titled Revolt of the Zombies, opened in 1936. Modern reception to White Zombie has been more positive than its initial release. Some critics have praised the atmosphere of the film, comparing it to the 1940s horror film productions of Val Lewton, while others still have an unfavourable opinion on the quality of the acting.
On arrival in Haiti, Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy) reunites with her fiancé Neil Parker (John Harron), with imminent plans to be married. On the way to their lodging, the couple’s coach passes Murder Legendre, an evil voodoo master, who observes them with interest and manages to grab Madeleine’s scarf. Neil and Madeleine arrive at the home of the wealthy plantation owner, Charles Beaumont. Charles’s love of Madeleine prompts him to meet Murder secretly in Murder’s sugar cane mill, operated entirely by zombies. Charles wants to convince Madeleine to marry him and solicits Murder’s supernatural assistance. Murder states that the only way to help Charles is to transform Madeleine into a zombie with a potion. Beaumont agrees and surreptitiously gives the potion to Madeleine. Shortly after Madeleine and Neil’s wedding ceremony, the potion takes effect on Madeleine, who soon apparently dies and is buried. Murder and Charles enter Madeleine’s tomb at night and Murder revives her as a zombie. Drunk and depressed, Neil sees ghostly apparitions of Madeleine and goes to her tomb. On finding it empty, Neil seeks assistance from the local missionary, Dr. Bruner, who recounts how Murder turned many of his rivals into zombies, who now act as guardians. The two men journey to Murder’s cliffside castle to rescue Madeleine.
At the castle, Charles has begun to regret Madeleine’s transformation and begs Murder to return her to life, but Murder refuses. Charles discovers he has been tainted by Murder’s voodoo and is transforming into a zombie. As Neil enters the fortress, Murder senses his presence and silently orders Madeleine to kill Neil. She approaches Neil with a knife, but Bruner stops her. Neil follows Madeleine to an escarpment, where Murder commands his zombie guardians to kill Neil. Bruner approaches Murder and knocks him out, breaking Murder’s mental control over his zombies. Undirected, the zombies topple off the cliff. Murder awakens and eludes Neil and Bruner, but Charles pushes Murder off the cliff. Charles loses his balance and also falls to his death. Murder’s death releases Madeleine from her zombie trance, and she awakens to embrace Neil.