I See Death

Just a pinpoint monsieur. In a flower. Or perhaps in a glass of wine.

– Murder Legendre

It’s Day 2 of the Fright Festival and I decided to watch another one I haven’t seen in some time – the 1932 pre-Code classic, White Zombie. Directed by Victor Halperin and starring Bela Lugosi, it’s considered by many to be the first feature length zombie film.

It’s an odd film. It lacks much of what characterizes a lot of the horror films of this period; there’s almost no hint of Expressionist influence, and a distinct paucity of gothic stylings, despite the sets and costuming, most of which was reused from earlier films. There’s a sense that all of this was intended to be there, but it never really materializes save in one early scene, with zombie workers labouring mindlessly in a sugar mill. In my opinion, that scene alone is worth watching the film for – which is why I’ve included it below.

Lugosi is in fine form here, as Murder Legendre – which is a fantastic name, by the way. He does a lot of the heavy lifting with his eyes and body language, in a similar fashion to his turn as Dracula a year previous. I hesitate to say it, but I actually somewhat prefer his turn here. It’s the little things – the way he snatches Madge Bellamy’s scarf off of her neck or the way he balls his fist when Robert Frazer’s scheming plantation owner refuses to shake his hand.

Frazer, Bellamy and the other members of the cast are largely just sort of…there. If that sounds as if I’m damning them with faint praise, well, they’re playing stock roles to the hilt, with that slight edge of over-acting you see in this period of film. Bellamy and the rest were mostly silent film stars, and their careers were on the downswing by this time.

A notable exception is Clarence Muse as the coach driver in the opening scenes. Muse had a fascinating career, spanning the Harlem Renaissance, Broadway and beyond, though you wouldn’t know it from his brief appearance in this film. That said, the emotion he packs into his lines – his palpable, yet unexaggerated, terror at the sight of Lugosi’s unliving servants – does a great deal to sell the premise. It says something that he and Lugosi are the two most vibrant characters in the film. I highly suggest you read up on Muse, if you’ve never heard of him, as I suggest you seek out the film and give it a watch if you’ve never seen it.

One final note: perhaps the thing I love most about this film does not take place in the film itself, but rather in Jeff Rovin’s wonderful 1998 novel, Return of the Wolf Man. In it, we learn that Murder Legendre survives his somewhat ignominious end in the film, and washed up on another island where he immediately attempted to pick up where he’d left off – only the island in question belonged to Dracula. As you might expect, Murder’s hash gets nastily settled. It’s a wonderful little Easter egg for horror fans, and I highly recommend that you dig up a copy of the book if you can.