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White Zombie (1932) Wonder

Yep, this is the film that started it all.

White Zombie (1932) Wonder
Balthasar, Apr 7, 2018
    • Balthasar
      Although indirectly referring to ideas already present in previous films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by Robert Wiene, wherein a sleepwalker controlled by an evil character, unconsciously performs crimes, and For the Fatherland (1919) by Abel Gance, wherein a group of war dead return from the dead and march against the living, White Zombie can be considered the first film to bring an actual zombie character to the screen. It is, however, still far from the later Romero cannibals imposed on the collective imagination from The Night of the Living Dead onwards: the beings commanded by White Zombie's villain, Legendre, seem rather to be suspended between life and death, immersed in a state that makes them invincible to bullets, but in a condition that is still reversible. On the other hand, here the Halperin brothers refer directly to the cultural tradition of Haitian voodoo, first described in a book written a few years earlier, The Magic Island (1929) by the adventurer-occultist-blowhard William Seabrook. So the zombies here are not yet formally living dead, although their slow and inexorable pace, their fixity and their apparent invulnerability make the film a cinematic archetype.

      That said, White Zombie is rooted firmly in the vein of that Hollywood horror cinema born in the wake of German expressionism just a year before, with Tod Browning's Dracula, with whom it shares the great Bela Lugosi in the part of the villain: Dr. Legendre, often framed in typically expressionist lighting, who lives in an obscure manor not unlike that of the Transylvanian count. Thanks to the presence of Lugosi (who ties this film to the broader canon of Golden Age horror films), as well as to its historical importance, White Zombie is considered a small classic in the history of cinema.

      The Halperin Brothers, producers of the movie, had been involved in movie making for years. Victor Haperin had worked his way up from stage actor and stage director, eventually to becoming a film director for various Poverty Row studios, mostly working on low-budget melodramas. His brother Edward, an aspiring screenwriter, lined up financing for a string of independent films for Victor to direct. In 1927, the brothers formed their own production company, initially named, "Halperin Brothers, Production Engineers" (later Victor & Edward Halperin Productions), and announced in the press (Movie World, May 1927) that they'd acquired "fiction material valued at several hundred thousand dollars" to use as source material. The company, they added, was "a strictly independent organization" which was "negotiating with several of the leading producing and distributing companies for the production of novels and plays" they controlled. It's probably safe to assume that The Magic Island was one of those novels they happened to control the film rights for, since they were able to win a lawsuit brought against them by Ken Webb, who, in 1929, had mounted a Broadway flop titled, Zombie, presumably also based on Seabrook's book (though The Magic Island did not represent the first usage in English print of the word zombie - it had appeared as a term connected to a Voodoo snake god much earlier).

      William Seabrook, the man who wrote The Magic Island, is described as 'an American Lost Generation occultist, explorer, traveler, cannibal, and journalist', who began as a reporter and editor for the Augusta Chronicle in Georgia, was later a partner in an advertising agency in Atlanta, and eventually wrote for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Reader's Digest, and Vanity Fair. When World War I broke out, he joined the American Field Service of the French Army. He was gassed at Verdun in 1916 and was later awarded the Croix de Guerre. The following year, he became a reporter for The New York Times. In 1919, he was visited on his farm for a week by the famous English occultist Aleister Crowley. The experience apparently moved Seabrook deeply, compelling him to later write a book about it, Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today.

      In 1924, Seabrook embarked on a series of adventures which would come to define his life and literary career. He first went to Arabia, and got deeply into the cultures of the Bedouins and Yaziti Kurds. His account of his those travels, Adventures in Arabia: among the Bedouins, Druses, Whirling Dervishes and Yezidee Devil Worshipers was published in 1927; it was sufficiently successful to allow him to travel to Haiti, where he developed an interest in Haitian Vodou and the Culte des Mortes, from which resulted The Magic Island. The 336-page book actually only devotes about 12 pages to the death cult: a single chapter titled “...Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields”. The rest of the book is filled with sensational tales of ritual, magic, sacrifice, potions, and feverish midnight sex-dances (in other words, writes a reviewer writing about the book on thenonest.com: "all of the objective reportage one might expect from an alcoholic, occult-dabbling, middle-aged white man traveling through Haiti in the 1920’s.")

      In each recounted experience, Seabrook put a premium on 'going native' - donning native clothing, and participating in native ceremonies. He claimed, for instance to have studied to be a Witch Doctor in Haiti. Seabrook stirred some controversy when, in his next novel, the account of a similar trip to Africa titled, Jungle Ways (1930), he claimed that he had eaten human flesh with a cannibal tribe, a claim that he later recanted, admitting that the tribe had not allowed him to participate in the ritual. He claimed that he had, rather, obtained some human flesh from a hospital and cooked it up to see what it tasted like (for the curious: like veal). Seabrook wrote two more novels based on his true-life adventures, Air Adventure (1933), about a trip into the Sahara in a biplane, made to retrieve rare documents from a defrocked monk in the French Sudan, and The White Monk of Timbuctoo (1934). Suffering from the ravages of alchoholism, he checked himself into an asylum, and turned that experience into his next book, Asylum (1935) (maybe the first rehab tell-all book?). He finally summed it all up in No Hiding Place: An Autobiography (1942), before committing suicide by drug overdose in 1945. But that was not to be the last word written about Seabrook. In 1966, his former wife Marjorie Muir Worthington also wrote a book titled The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, which revealed Seabrook's dark side, an alcohol-soaked world of obsession and bondage. This theme was expanded upon in the heavily researched graphic novel, The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, in which cartoonist Joe Ollman describes how the deeper he got into researching Seabrook, the more salacious the details got. He describes Seabrook as "a barely functioning alcoholic who was deeply obsessed with bondage and the so-called mystical properties of pain and degradation, [and for whom] life was a series of traveling highs and drunken lows; climbing on and falling off the wagon again and again." Aleister Crowley, about whom Seabrook devoted a book, said upon his death, “The swine-dog W. B. Seabrook has killed himself at last.”

      One can't neglect in this parade of unlikely Zombie-parentage the role of Alexander King, who illustrated The Magic Island. Described as a thief, morphine addict, failing playwright and painter, Alexander King was a man of iconoclastic observations and caustic humor who began his career as a painter of human figures, focused primarily on the face. Then he became an art thief, stealing fifty prints from the Metropolitan Museum. He was jailed twice, and married four times. A veteran newspaperman turned press agent, he published his various anecdotes in a series of off-beat books that were very popular at the time. Nearly forgotten today, King became a 'racontuer on residence' during the Jack Parr years of “The Tonight Show” and on the TV talk show circuit from roughly the mid-1950s until his death in 1965.

      Many of King's illustrations for The Magic Island are found on the thenonest.com website linked to above. Some of the scenes in White Zombie seem to have derived directly from King's illustrations, particularly scenes in the movie of the Zombies in silhouette, trudging off to work in the sugar cane fields.

      Victor Halperin and his brother Edward produced just four more movies together after White Zombie, including a sequel titled Revolt of the Zombies (1936) which involved, reportedly, a payoff to American Securities, an entity not normally associated with movie financing that had helped finance White Zombie, because they believed that they had, in their contract with the Halperins, purchased the film rights to the word 'Zombie'. The resultant court case was decided in favor of American, and release of "Revolt of the Zombies" faced an injunction until the Halperins settled with American, which they did to the tune of $11,000. The last film the brothers produced together was an odd one: Nation Aflame (1937), from a story by Thomas Dixon Jr., who had written Birth of a Nation (1915), about con men who come into a small town and start a branch of the Klu Klux Klan in order to 'make a killing' selling Klan robes to the unwitting dupes (I swear to god, that's the plot). While Birth of a Nation has been called a 'love song' to the Klan, the advertising for Nation Aflame used the tagline "Hoodlums On Horseback Who Menaced A Nation, and a Woman Who Placed Country Before Honor!", so one wonders what relation the film has with the source material. Edward Halperin moved into screenwriting after that, and Victor continued to direct, recruited to helm the horror-thrillers Torture Ship (1939) and Buried Alive (1939). His last film as a director was Girls Town (1939), about a group of aspiring actresses living in a Los Angeles boarding house. His last movie credit was as a writer, providing the story for a western, The Lone Star Trail (1942), which starred Johnny Mack Brown and Tex Ritter, and is known for being one of Robert Mitchum's earliest screen credits.

      White Zombie received a mixed box office reception upon its initial release, but was a great financial success for an independent film at the time. In 1933 and 1934, the film experienced positive box-office numbers in small towns in the United States, as well as in Germany under the title Flucht von der Teufelsinsel (it was one of the few American horror films to be approved by the Nazis). Since then, the film has achieved cult status, and was famously the inspiration for the name of Rob Zombie's band, The White Zombies. The film was thought lost until a print of it was found in the 1960s. A court battle was fought between film distributor Frank Storace and the estate of Stanley Krellberg, the copyright owner of the film. Storace had wished to produce a restored version of the film, but the estate refused him access to original footage in their possession. Storace gave up the court battle, but the film has since been restored, and can be found online.
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