White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie (1932)‘A cloud of vultures always hovers over the house of the living dead.’

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.

‘The More You Ignore Me The Closer I’ll Get.’

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. 

White Zombie (1932)

‘Look, I said you could stay for the reception but this is going too far.’

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.

White Zombie (1932)

‘Once around the park, then.’

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.

White Zombie (1932)

‘Whatever she wants, it’s your turn.’

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.

Nightmare City / City of the Walking Dead (1980)

Nightmare City (1980)‘Aim for the brain. We must be very specific about that.’

A military transport makes an unscheduled landing at a big city airport. When the authorities surround the plane, they are attacked by the passengers, who have turned into flesh-eating mutants. And they’re a bit peckish…

Cheesy Spanish-Italian ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978) rip-off that is never anything but a lifeless copy of the George A Romero classic. Director Umberto Lenzi provides almost no explanation for the deadly outbreak, apart from an early reference to a serious radioactive spill and the fact that one of the hungry passengers is a scientist who was being brought in to investigate the accident. After that, it’s just the usual mixture of survivors on the run (who will be next to get eaten?), serious military types in a bunker (move our forces to zone 7), and lots of extras covered in ketchup overacting outrageously.

Heading up the armed forces is General Mel Ferrer, a respected and serious actor, who had appeared mostly famously in ‘Lilli’ (1953), ‘War and Peace’ (1955) and ‘The Sun Also Rises’ (1957). He was also married to Audrey Hepburn for 14 years. But that had all been quite a few years before and his late 1970’s credits had been consistently embarrassing. For TV, there were guest slots on ‘Logan’s Run’, soap juggernaut ‘Dallas’ and a prominent part in Irwin Allen’s dreadful mini-series ‘The Amazing Captain Nemo’ (1978). On the big screen it was even worse; appearing alongside Lee Majors in chucklefest ‘The Norseman’ (1978), having a ‘close encounter’ with bonkers ‘first contact’ rip-off ‘The Visitor’ (1978), turning up in Italian horrors ‘Island of the Fishmen’ (1979) and ‘The Great Alligator’ (1979) and even headlining for Lenzi before in cannibal shocker ‘Eaten Alive!’ (1980).

However, at least Ferrer doesn’t get directly involved in any of the silliness on display, remaining firmly on the sidelines of the main action. Perhaps it’s telling that the only member of the bunker staff who interacts with anyone outside is Major Francisco Rabal and that’s limited to scenes with his girlfriend Sonia Vivani and a fleeting appearance in a helicopter. Yes, this is ‘patchwork’ filming making at its finest, with the main plot (such as it is) focusing on TV reporter Hugo Stiglitz and his wife Laura Trotter. Unfortunately, the film tells us almost nothing about the pair so there is no audience engagement with their eventual fate. Characters are introduced simply to be killed, while Ferrer and his buddies in the bunker look grave and make decisions to ‘clear sector g’ and ‘pull back from area 5’ etc. etc.

Nightmare City (1980)

🎶..and now…the end is near…🎵

The ‘Z’ word is never mentioned, and our flesh-eaters move at normal speed, which predicts some more recent developments in the genre. However, although gore is plentiful and detailed, it’s not particularly convincing, and the ‘twist’ ending is desperately poor, leaving the distinct impression that either there was no budget to film a notable climax, or the production simply ran out of money.

Director Umberto Lenzi began his career by jumping on the ‘Hercules’ bandwagon in the  early 1960s but then switched to ‘Bond’ when that became popular a few years later. After that, it was Gallo thrillers and ‘Godfather’ pictures throughout the 1970s before horror took over and he started shooting films about cannibals. Nothing wrong with working in different genres, of course, but Lenzi seems to have been little more than a journeyman director with an eye firmly fixed on commerical possibilities, rather than anyhthing else.

Hurried, cheap and undistinguished horror flick aimed squarely at the home video market of the early 1980s.

Valley of the Zombies (1946)

Valley_of_the_Zombies_(1946)‘Let’s go over to Dr Maynard’s office and see if we can pick up a clue that will lead us to this particular party who has a passion for pickling.’

Blood has been going missing from a doctor’s surgery, and when the senior physician decides to stay late, he is mysteriously murdered. Suspicion falls on his young partner and his nurse, and they set out together to find the killer.

Producer Val Lewton achieved a surprising level of success in the 1940s at RKO’s B-Picture unit with a string of atmospheric, low-budget horrors. Other studios tried to turn the trick as well, but, unfortunately, the filmmakers involved tended to be less talented than the stable of writers and directors that Lewton had at his disposal. Republic were a studio best known for serials and second-feature westerns, and their attempts to produce chills instead of thrills here were somewhat less than stellar.

The problem with this particular example is an uncertainty of tone. The setup is actually quite good. Early on we have brain surgeon Dr Maynard (Charles Trowbridge) menaced in his office by the sinister Ormand Murks (Ian Keith), a man he pronounced dead four years earlier. lt’s easily the best scene in the picture, with effective lighting and Keith stopping short of going over the top, and managing to look genuinely quite unhinged. Sadly, that’s about all he gets to do, as he’s reduced to skulking around like a silent movie villain for the rest of the picture.

Because it turns out the film is actually a comedy-mystery with our accused young couple (Robert Livingstone and Lorna Gray) trading lame wisecracks while digging around in the old dark house which was the Murks ancestral home. They get trapped in a crypt, Livingstone falls down a hole and Gray is almost grabbed by a clutching hand. Twice. It’s generic, slipshod and tired. We’re also saddled with a dim police inspector (Thomas E Jackson) who loves alliteration, zero plot development, and no real explanation to events other than some vague references to strange voodoo rites. And we have a killer who can apparently embalm someone in the space of a few minutes, and with no equipment.

Valley of the Zombies (1946)

🎵’I’m puttin’ on my top hat…!’🎶

No-one involved here made much of a mark in Hollywood. Director Phillip Ford went onto helm a lot of TV episodes, principally ‘Lassie’ and ‘The Adventures of Superman.’ Gray was a busy b-movie heroine, who mostly appeared in westerns, but is best remembered now for ‘The Man They Could Not Hang’ (1939) with Boris Karloff, and the movie serial ‘Captain America’ (1944). Trowbridge had bits in big movies as judges, governors and other authority figures.

It is a pretty painless way to spend 55 minutes, but it’s hard to have any kind of emotional investment in the story and, in particular, in our leading couple. They seem to think that being accused of murder is an opportunity for amusement, and the murders of friends and colleagues can be brushed off with a ten-second expression of surprise. Of course, that would be fine if the picture had begun in the same light-hearted fashion, but there weren’t many giggles in the confrontation between Trowbridge and Keith at the start, and neither seemed to be playing it for laughs.

Contemporary audiences will probably stick with this one if expectations aren’t high, but a little more attention to detail would have been nice, and a least one original idea would have helped no end.

I Eat Your Skin (1964)

I_Eat_Your_Skin_(1964)‘He wants to make you goat without horns.’

A playboy writer travels to a Caribbean island to do research for a novel with his agent and his agent’s wife. When they get there, they find a scientist researching a cure for cancer and a plague of zombies…

Originally filmed as ‘Zombie’ then re-titled ‘Zombie Bloodbath’ this was filmed in 1964 by director Del Tenney but failed to get any kind of a release. Six years later, distributor Jerry Gross picked it up and re-titled it again (just as inaccurately) because he was looking for a support feature to play with his release ‘I Drink Your Blood’ (1970). It’s a bit of a mystery as to why the film didn’t get an original release because although it’s not very good, it’s certainly a lot better than ‘The Horror of Party Beach’ (1964), which Tenney also unleashed that year and did go on general release.

Our lead is William Joyce and his performance as the aggressive alpha male is not exactly subtle. Why Heather Hewitt should fall for him is a bit of a mystery but then he does have his shirt off most of the time. She’s the scientist’s beautiful daughter and the main target (for vague reasons) of the local voodoo cult. It does make me wonder why scientists never have ugly daughters, despite what they look like themselves (memo to self: get to know more scientists). Plot wise this is predictable and bares a certain resemblance to ‘Isle of the Snake People’ (1968); one of the four movies Boris Karloff made in Mexico before he died. But, of course this was made first, just released later.

Poached eyeballs were on the breakfast menu that morning...

Poached eyeballs were on the breakfast menu that morning…

The movie manages to attain basic levels of competency in every department; but it is just 80 minutes of relentless mediocrity. The zombie makeup is unconvincing but certainly memorable and the identity of the main villain of the piece should come as a surprise to nobody. Joyce’s toy pistol seems unimpaired by an extended drag through a river and the exploding aeroplane scene is a bit silly. Also, the story never makes complete sense. Why do the natives let the scientist experiment on them when they’re obviously a bit narked about the whole thing?

It’s an agreeable time passer; especially if you suspend your critical faculties and spend as much time as possible staring at Miss Hewitt.

Buy ‘I Eat Your Skin’ here

Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

“This could mean the end of the white race!”Revolt of the Zombies

An archaeologist fighting on the French side in World War One discovers the secret to making zombies in a lost city.

An unusual setting for the Halperin Brothers follow up to their box office smash ‘White Zombie’ (1932). That movie had starred legendary master of menace Bela Lugosi – still riding the coat tails of his global success in ‘Dracula’ (1931). Sadly, no Lugosi here (apart from close up shots of his eyes from the previous movie) – just bland Dean Jagger who makes some bad life choices when he’s jilted by feisty Dorothy Stone.

At first the the proceedings look quite promising. The French forces have captured an ancient high priest who agrees to provide them with a zombie army. As a demo we get the movie’s outstanding scene – half a dozen zombie soldiers taking on an enemy trench, ignoring the bullet holes that appear in their bodies. Ok, it’s very brief and not very well done but it is kind of effective. Instead of being thrilled by this potential weapons development (how times change!) the French arrange an expedition to the high priest’s lost city to destroy the secret forever. The priest himself is dead by then – murdered by one of the French officers whose entire job seems to be to act as a random incidental villain.

Unfortunately, the movie takes a turn for the worse when we reach the lost city and we are treated to a pale re-hash of the themes of ‘White Zombie’ (1932). A tiresome love triangle results in Jagger using mental telepathy – the ‘zombie’ secret! – to take over the minds of everyone in the immediate locale. All so he can marry the General’s daughter. These zombies don’t do much – a little bit of marching, some staring off into the distance – and when they ‘revolt’ at the climax they still don’t seem that motivated.

Anbassador, with this Ferrero Rocher you are really spoiling us...

Anbassador, with this Ferrero Rocher you are really spoiling us…

This wasn’t quite the end for independent producers the Halperin Brothers – they crawled on with minor projects for almost another decade – but they never recaptured the success and spooky ambience of ‘White Zombie’ (1932).

This movie only goes to highlight the unique but strictly one-off achievement of that earlier film. If they’d only developed the idea of Zombie soldiers…