I just had a look at the trailer for the latest zombie movie, World War Z. And you know what? It did not awaken even the slightest wish to actually see the film.
For decades, all zombie movies have been basically the same: Help! They are taking over the world! They are coming! Cut off their heads! Ow, it bit my leg! Help! The end.
The main development in the genre is that the old movie zombies, like those in The Last Man on Earth (1964), are very slow and not terribly scary, whereas the modern variety, in accordance with the movie audience’s demand for ever higher adrenaline kicks, are fast, furious and very dangerous. But the stories remain basically the same.
The very first zombie film, White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi, is something entirely different. Here we find zombies that are rooted in the Caribbean voodoo tradition, zombies that are not necessarily dead; only completely without wills and minds of their own.
White Zombie was made at a time when sound film was still a new medium. Sound quality was not very good, and neither actors nor directors had yet become used to the new dimension offered them. As a result, actors performed as though they were still in a silent, with overly theatrical gestures and poses. Some find this disturbing. I think it is charming.
Bela Lugosi is the only one in the film who manages to be theatrical and still seem at ease. He gives a magnificent performance, and in my opinion, he is even better here than in his iconic portrayal in Dracula (1931).
Compared with the modern zombie movie, White Zombie is very slowly paced, but its pacing is also very deliberate, and together with effective lighting and scenography creates a tension that is maintaned almost through to the end. In many ways, in fact, White Zombie is very much less clichéd than modern zombie movies. Being the first of its kind, it was not yet stuck in the conventions of the genre.
This film is best enjoyed just before a thunder storm, while the air is moist, warm and heavy.
Internet Archive page
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Victor Halperin
Stars: Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480 not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.6 G)