White Zombie is a 1932 American pre-Code horror film independently produced by Edward Halperin and directed by Victor Halperin. The screenplay by Garnett Weston, based on The Magic Island by William Seabrook, is about a young woman’s transformation into a zombie at the hands of an evil voodoo master. Bela Lugosi stars as the zombie master “Murder” Legendre, with Madge Bellamy appearing as his victim. Other cast members include Joseph Cawthorn, Robert W. Frazer, John Harron, Brandon Hurst, and George Burr MacAnnan.
Large portions of White Zombie were shot on the Universal Studios lot, borrowing many props and scenery from other horror films of the era. The film opened in New York to negative reception, with reviewers criticizing the film’s over-the-top story and weak acting. While the film made a substantial financial profit as an independent feature, it proved less popular than other horror films of the time.
White Zombie is considered the first feature-length zombie film. A sequel, Revolt of the Zombies, opened in 1936. Modern reception to White Zombie has been more positive. Some critics have praised the film’s atmosphere and compared it to the 1940s horror films of Val Lewton, while others still have unfavorable opinions on the quality of the acting.
The synopsis of the film goes something like this: Young couple Madeleine and Neil are coaxed by acquaintance Monsieur Beaumont to get married on his Haitian plantation. Beaumont’s motives are purely selfish as he makes every attempt to convince the beautiful young girl to run away with him. For help, Beaumont turns to the devious Legendre, a man who runs his mill by mind-controlling people he has turned into zombies. After Beaumont uses Legendre’s zombie potion on Madeleine, he is dissatisfied with her emotionless being and wants her to be changed back. Legendre has no intention of doing this and he drugs Beaumont as well to add to his zombie collection. Meanwhile, grieving ‘widower’ Neil is convinced by a local priest that Madeleine may still be alive and he seeks her out.