The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

White Zombie (1932) Classic Movie Review 20

Bela Lugosi in White Zombie (1932)

Bela Lugosi in White Zombie (1932)

Before we get through with this thing we may uncover sins that even the devil would be ashamed of.

White Zombie (1932) is an amazing black and white horror classic. Bela Lugosi is phenomenal as “Murder” the lord of the zombies. This is one film you do not want to miss as they weave an interesting tale around zombie lore in Haiti.

Rough Script White Zombie (1932)

Believe it or not this was the first time I have ever seen White Zombie (1932) and all I can say is why did I wait so long. As far as I’m concerned this is right up there with Dracula and Frankenstein. The movie was not received well when it was first released but has gained in popularity since its’ rediscovery in the 1960s. The band White Zombie was named for this movie.

This film was originally shot in 11 days. Bela Lugosi always regretted that he was only paid $500 for this role.

Lugosi is amazing with his pointed widow’s peak, very bushy eyebrows, a split mustache, and a goatee. He uses his Dracula stare to great effect in this movie. They made some nice camera effects with glowing eyes in the background that transform into Lugosi’s character starting and transmitting his zombie instructions.

I won’t spend any time discussing Bela Lugosi because he was covered in Episode 9 Son of Frankenstein (1939) of this podcast and frankly I don’t want to try and say the name of his birth town again. In this movie he played ‘Murder’ Legendre the lord of the zombies.

Madge Bellamy was cast as Madeline Short and following her marriage Madeline Parker. Bellamy was a fairly successful silent era actress. When the talkies began her roles began to wane. Her silent training served her well in this role as a large part of the time she could not talk.

In 1943, she fired three shots at her ex-lover. She later filed for divorce from the victim although they were never married. This ended her career and she lived poorly for her remaining years.

Joseph Cawthorn portrayed Dr. Bruner a missionary that had lived in Haiti for many years. He had a thick accent and gave a little comic relief in this movie. Cawthorn began working on the stage in the 19th century. When this career had run its course he moved to Hollywood in 1927. He began his second career in films and worked opposite of the great stars of that era. He made over 50 films with his last being released in 1942.

Robert Frazer played the role of Charles Beaumont a rich land owner that became obsessed with Madeline Short and was willing to pay any price to obtain her love. Frazer was in well over 200 shorts and films beginning in 1912 and continuing through the mid 1940s.

John Harron was cast as Neil Parker the naive fiancee of Madeline Short. Harron was in 167 shorts and films from 1918 to 1940. He died early at the age of 36.

Brandon Hurst was Silver the butler for Beaumont. I kept noticing him and expecting him to have a larger role that he did. When I started doing my research I found out that he had been a stage actor but transitioned into films and made 129 films before his death. Notable he was Jehan Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1932).

Murder had a main group of zombies that did his bidding. They were all his enemies or teachers. Some of the looks and hairstyles of this group seem to have been borrowed by later films. The zombie henchmen include: George Burr Macannan, Frederick Peters, and John Printz.

Finally I want to mention Clarence Muse who was uncredited as the coach driver. He is first seen driving the coach at night and is stopped by a funeral taking place in the middle of the road. I was waiting for some stereotypical fright but was surprised by the composure the driver showed.

Muse held a law degree from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. He was the first African-American to star in a film. During his long and varied career he was active in preventing stereotypical for African-Americans.


The story begins in 1932 in Haiti with Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) traveling with her fiancé Neil Parker (John Harron). The coach driver (Clarence Muse) stops the coach for a night funeral that is taking place in the middle of the road. He tells the couple that this protects the dead from grave robbers.

The driver crosses the grave and continues on towards the home of Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer). Beaumont apparently has met the young couple on the ship from New York and has taken in interest in them. He has arranged for a preacher so they can be married that night at his house.

The driver stops when he see a lone figure by the road that turns out to be Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi). He is wearing a large floppy hat and a cap and I clearly would not have stopped.

Murder stares intensely at Madeline and grabs her scarf. The driver sees the crew of zombie henchmen ahead much like grinning grinning ghost waiting for a ride. He spurs the horse onward and the scarf is ripped from Madeline’s neck in mock death.

The couple and the driver arrive at Beaumont’s home and the driver gives another zombie warning. About this time Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) a local priest arrives. He tells the couple that Beaumont is not the type to help out without a reason and suggest they leave the island.

Beaumont greets the couple and then dashes off to Murder’s zombie mill to get some zombie creating juice. As he walks through the mill slow walking zombies are dumping sugar cane into a grinder. When I say the grinding blades I thought someone is going in. But it happened five seconds later when a zombie tips over.

I have always wondered if you could run a successful business with zombies. They can work 24 hours a day as long as the drums are going. But they are so slow. Would paying someone to work 12 hours a day be cheaper. You wouldn’t have to pay for drummers and they would work a lot faster. Humm.

Beaumont refuses Murder’s extended hand and the face and hand of Murder clench in the agony of being rejected. Murder gives Beaumont the elixir and says a pin drop in a rose or glass of wine will do. Foreshadowing.

Beaumont returns home and against Dr. Bruner’s advise Madeline is dressed for the wedding. Beaumont gives her the hard press to marry him as they are walking down the stairs to the wedding. This is way before The Graduate. When she rebuffs him he doses her with a zombie flower.

The wedding goes fine and later at the celebration commences Murder carves a candle into the form of a female and wraps it in Madeline’s scarf. As he holds the doll in the fire Madeline sees Murder’s eyes in her wine glass and dies the zombie death.

Neil eventually heads to the local bar where he tries to drink his pains away. The happy dancing and drinking shadows on the wall give surreal mode. He sees Madeline’s image and staggers away to her grave. At the same time Murder, Beaumont, and henchmen are removing the body. Neil arrives too late to help but hey, he was too drunk to help anyway.

Beaumont has Madeline under his power and uses her as a zombie piano player. He is upset by her vacant eyes and lack of emotion. He turned her into a zombie. Did he expect affection? Good ole Neil heads to Dr. Bruner for help and the priest shows him that zombieism is in the law of Haiti. They make a plan to go to the zombie mill and look for Madeline. Neil and Bruner work out a little stick around needing a match to light a pipe. Around the same time Beaumont heads to the mill to see if he can get Madeline dezombied.

However you can’t trust a guy named Murder. Murder wants to keep Madeline and tricks Beaumont into drinking some zombie juice in a wine glass. It seems like Silver is in on the plan but then the hench zombies come and throw him two feet into the water where he screams and dies.

Murder hangs out with Beaumont as the zombie drug starts to take effect. Murder carves a candle into the shape of a male and ask questions as Beaumont slowly turns.

Neil and Bruner meet with Pierre (Dan Crimmins) an old witch doctor friend of the preacher. Pierre gives them some advise but is too old to make the journey himself. As they leave, Neil shows signs of coming down with a fever. It could be a hangover though.

Bruner and Neil setup a lean to on the beach below the zombie mill which is really a castle on a cliff. Neil is too sick to go on so Bruner heads for the mill.

Madeline walks out onto the balcony and looks toward where Neil is camped. They begin to sense each other. The cinematographer does a really nice diagonal split of the two lovers with some fades and zooms. When Madeline walks she loses her zombie shuffle sometime as she is fading in and out. Neil gets up and makes his way to the castle. He gets to the room just outside of where Murder and Beaumont are doing their thing and lays down on a couch for a nap. Murder finds finds Neil and summons Madeline to kill him. There is a mental battle between Murder and Madeline but she finally raises the knife to strike. A caped arm reaches out and knocks the knife from her hands. For a minute I thought it might be the Phantom of the Opera.

Madeline heads to the parapet with the recently awoken Neil in hot pursuit. Murder and his hench zombies head to the a parapet for some killing. Neil shoots one of the henchmen to no effect. The capped Bruner shows up and clunks Murder on the head with a blackjack or macaldore. The hence zombies following their last command walk off the ledge. Madeline almost comes back but Murder gets up and resumes control. About this time Beaumont comes down the stairs and knocks Murder of the ledge to his death. Beaumont is not far behind Murder with buzzards nipping at his heels.

Madeline comes back from zombie land and as her and Neil embrace to kiss, Bruner breaks in and asks for a match. I’m thinking she would have had zombie breath anyway.

World-Famous Short Summary – love triangle turns into a cube and ends badly.

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