A young couple arrive at the Haitian estate of a rich planter, who has persuaded them to hold their wedding ceremony at his home. However, he has an ulterior motive; he wants the woman for himself, and has recruited the local occult master to help achieve his aim.
Spooky, atmospheric, non-studio production from director Victor Halperin and his brother Edward who acted as producer. It’s an important film in the history of horror cinema, and not just because it’s generally agreed to be the first ‘Zombie’ film. Although box office grosses are notoriously hard to calculate and often tied up in creative studio accounting, most commentators agree that the fllm was a probably the most commercially successful independent American movie of the 1930s.
The film opens with young couple John Harron and Madge Bellamy taking a carriage ride through the Haitian night on their way to the sugar plantation of Robert Frazer. Apparently, the trio met on the boat over and Frazer persuaded the naive young lovers to tie the knot at the old homestead. But, of course, Frazer wants to put the moves on Bellamy and when she’s not interested, he goes to Plan B. This involves a deal with local zombie wrangler Murder Legendre, who is played by the wonderful Bela Lugosi, just over a year after ‘Dracula’ (1931) turned him briefly into a Hollywood star.
And it’s pleasing to report that this is one of Lugosi’s signature roles. His zombie master haunts the groves and cliff paths of the studio backlot like Satan himself; cruel yet suave, merciless but with a twisted smile on his lips and a glint in his eye. The actor’s grasp of the English language seems to have improved so that his line delivery is smoother, still heavily accented and a little offbeat, but with added menace and meaning. In short, his unforgettable presence pervades the entire movie and he gets plenty of screen time.
Although the production utilised some studio resources, the low budget does show through a little at times, but director Halperin employs some inventive camerawork and highly effective production design which more than compensate. The local cemetery is depicted as crosses planted on the side of a steep hill; a subtle suggestion that the dead are buried upright and not averse to the odd midnight stroll. The use of a vulture as Lugosi’s familiar is also a very creepy touch and the atmosphere is almost other worldly, the setting and action somehow removed from the conventions of normal space and time.
However, the film is seriously flawed in two particular aspects. Firstly, there’s the story. There’s just not enough of it, not even for the scant 66 minute running time. The film can seem slow as a result, even though technically it’s far more modern in terms of technique than many films of the period. Some greater world-building would have helped no end. We do see the zombies working in Frazer’s sugar mill in one of the film’s most famous and memorable sequences, and in another Lugosi introduces some of his zombie crew as old enemies who sought to defy him. But we never find out anything more about the Lugosi character or what he gains from his dealings with Frazer. He certainly doesn’t seem to be the plantation owner’s hired hand.
Unfortunately, there’s a similar lack of development to the characters. Aside from Lugosi, Frazer has potentially the most interesting role to play; a love-starved Faust obsessed with young bride-to be Bellamy who makes a deal with the devil that he comes to regret. Sadly, Garnett Weston’s screenplay presents him as a completely one-note character; a petulant schoolboy whose constant whining sacrifices any sympathy the audience might have felt for him. Similarly, Bellamy and Harron have no real character traits, apart from their love for each other.
These weaknesses in the script inform the film’s other major flaw; the performances. Broadly speaking, the early days of sound cinema were populated by two types of actors, those that adapted quickly to the new medium, and those that didn’t. Sadly, Bellamy, Harron and Frazer definitely fall into the latter category. Their performances look hopelessly old-fashioned to modern eyes, although it does have to be acknowledged that perhaps they were trying to breathe some life into their terribly underwritten characters. As it is, it’s just impossible to imagine why even one man would be interested in vapid, moon-faced heroine Bellamy, let alone three. Although there is a wonderfully subtle moment when the more astute members of the audience will get the undoubted impression that Lugodi is keeping the zombified Bellamy around for a little more than just her skills at the piano.
Apart from Lugosi’s gloriously majestic performance, the only decent turn comes from Joseph Cawthorne, who brings a welcome lighter touch to the role of the local priest. He’s fulfilling the ‘Van Helsing’ part in the story and yes, the overall plot is not a million miles away from ‘Dracula’. The film even starts with a strange carraige ride to a gloomy old house. Castle or plantation, Haiti or Transylvania; take your pick, you’re still going to be mixing it with the undead before the credits roll.
It’s interesting to note how the cinema ‘zombie’ has changed since his first bow. These creatures are not the walking dead from modern horror fiction but victims of the occult who have been placed in a kind of trance where they have no will of their own. Yes, they appear to die and are buried before resurrection, but they were never truly dead. And they don’t spend their time wandering about looking to chow down on human flesh and feast on brains.
The movie does have some limitations but the haunting atmosphere and Lugposi’s tour de force performance make this a 1930s classic.