Friday, 11 March 2016


The early 1930s were not just a period of raiding classic literature for horror studios eager to profit from the new booming business in horror films. Anything that could create profitable terror in the hearts of the punters was viable material, so when Victor Halpern’s film White Zombie debuted in July 1932, its themes of voodoo witchcraft and occult possession in far-flung Haiti injected an exotic variant. Though the film itself is highly-flawed and tame, it was the first to hint at the coming sub-genre of the zombie movie. How was this mythology begun and why did it arrive at the time it did? Let’s put it into context by setting sail back through time to a dark chapter in world history.
There are many misconceptions about Voodoo. The depiction of colourful practises, especially within the realms of on-screen horror, have tainted it with entirely negative connotations. We often associate it with an intoxicating, primitive overload of the senses – the seductive, insistent thump of primal drumming, lurid imagery of priests gibbering in tongues, black magic rituals of animal sacrifice, tranced worshippers hurling themselves about in a rising, orgiastic fervour, pins jammed into dolls transmitting pain to a remote victim - all presided over by the top-hatted, grinning funster Baron Samedi. There is tribal excitement, the anticipation of supernatural feats and by the end of the show one unlucky (or unwilling) contestant may be dead or alive…or something unnervingly in between.
All of these elements are prurient fun if not taken seriously, but Voodoo is actually a genuine, sober religion that was forged under the most appalling conditions to give a beleaguered people a means of uniting and protecting them. It is condescended to by the mainstream yet forged with earnest principles and rituals no more fantastical than those held to by the major faiths. (The resurrection of life as proof of mystical power and faith? Miracles? These are all strangely familiar).
 The English-speaking world was not introduced to the concept of the zombie, the infantryman of the voodoo world, until 1889 when journalist Lafcadio Hearn wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine called ‘The Country of the Comers-Back’ about the phenomenon of the ‘corps cadavres’ or ‘walking dead’ that he heard rumours about in Martinique. He was only able to provide a flavour of the superstitious mutterings. It would take another travel writer, the American William Seabrook, to plunge whole-heartedly into his research first-hand and bring back the raw meat of folklore for westerners in the crucial volume The Magic Island.
Seabrook began as a buttoned-down square, following his college education into journalism then the advertising world before realising that he had the thrill-junkie soul of a true adventurer to satisfy. Rather than wait for America to draft him into World War One, he joined the French Army as an ambulance driver to drive right into the heart of the action. After the war, he tried to fit himself into the hip arts scene of New York’s Greenwich village literary set, but the highbrow elitists dismissed him as pandering to sensationalist supernatural stories and lurid sex crimes. He would ultimately develop the persona of the risk-taking, globe-trotting reporter who dared to travel where white men rarely ventured. He thrived on encountering bizarre and hostile cultures, immersing himself in their ways even to the point of tasting human flesh when studying cannibals.
Seabrook lived with the Bedouins in Arabia, the jungle tribes of Africa, and many other places but his greatest impact came from his time in the Caribbean island of Haiti. On the surface, this conventional-looking chap blended right in with the other white settlers in the capital, Port-Au-Prince in 1928 – but what he would transmit to his readers was anything but decent and restrained. Far from being a critical observer, his prose pulsed with recording only the direct experiences of unbridled perversion and sexual experimentation in his new environment (hence the insistence on trying cannibalism for his book Jungle Ways). He had already developed a taste for the kinky, reputedly travelling the world equipped with whips and chains in his luggage, and although this robbed him of objectivity, who cared when they could vicariously feast on the exciting eye-witness accounts he brought back?
It was a Haitian farmer, Polynice, who was Seabrook’s passport into the chilling territory of Caribbean ‘voudoun’. Through him, the writer understood how the economic culture of slavery first of all created the melting-pot from which voodoo and its belief system emerged.  Thousands of captured slaves had been imported from Africa to the West Indies to work the enormous French-governed plantations trading in sugar, coffee and cotton since the 17th century. Indeed, by the time of the French Revolution in 1789, Haiti (its name meaning ‘mountainous’ in the native Indian tongue) produced over half the world’s coffee and 40 percent of the sugar for Britain and France, which was the dominant European nation at that time). As their industrial need for cheap, illegally-exploited labour grew, the French shipped in thousands more slaves from West Africa. Gradually, the religions of the native Indians, the white slave traders and the various African cultures began to merge into a complicated belief system taking elements of African faiths and Roman Catholicism. This was the basis of Voodoo.
By 1804, Haiti’s black population had managed to free itself from slavery for good via revolutions led by Toussaint Louverture and Dessalines, even repelling a 40,000 strong French force led by Napoleon – to finally declare itself free with an Act of Independence. However, the freedom-fighting left a devastated country that had no infrastructure or experience in self-rule. Into the early twentieth century the country was continually besieged, particularly by repeated interventions from America, keen to maintain control of the Panama Canal. By the time of Seabrook’s fact-finding mission, Haiti had been an unwilling victim of American military and cultural occupation since 1915.
Under its new masters, the Haitian religion of Voodoo was prohibited, forcing it underground. Practitioners were forced to worship within the privacy of mainstream Roman Catholic churches - a co-existence that did not trouble them, but was not mutually-supported by Catholics. In spite of, and maybe because of, such opposition, Voodoo established a growing following among the powerless, inhumanely-treated people in Haitian society.
In Jaime Russell’s comprehensive guide to zombie film history, Book of the Dead, he zeroes in on a vital aspect of Voodoo, that of bodily possession by the gods:
“A person is comprised of two souls, the gros-bon-ange (literally ‘the big good angel’) and the ti-bon-ange (the little good angel). The first of these is an individual’s life force, the second is everything that defines them as them. For a god to take possession of a worshipper, the second of these two souls has to be cast out of the body. The spirit of the god then takes over the empty shell of flesh. Later, when the god departs, the ti-bon-ange returns to the body. In voodoo, much as in Christianity, the soul and the body are considered separate entities…”
This is crucial in understanding the vulnerability of the voodoo worshipper to perceived hijacking of their disembodied soul as a zombie by agents of evil beyond the safety of their rituals:
“According to zombie legend, such necromancy usually occurred after the sorcerer brought about the victim’s “death” through a combination of magic and potions… the sorcerer captured their essential soul and, on the eve of the burial, opened up their grave and removed the body…then bring(s) this corpse back to “life” as an obedient, mindless slave that could be put to work on some distant part of the island…”
To Haitians, the threat of zombification of their dead relatives was no mere superstition. They took it so seriously that they would take elaborate precautions to prevent it happening in the afterlife. A wealthy family could afford the security of a private tomb to prevent access. Poorer families might bury their loved one under heavy stonework or at a busy cross-roads (referenced in White Zombie), or even station a family member to watch over the graveside till the body had time to decompose. A more extreme measure was to poison the body or shoot it so it would be of no use to evil sorcerers.
In a culture so barbarically treated by self-imposed overlords, the Haitians feared the prospect of becoming a zombie far more than being the victim of one. Death was at least regarded as a heavenly escape from the earth-bound misery of subjugation, so everything humanly possible was done to avoid their monstrous servitude being carried over for eternity into the afterlife.
After Polynice told Seabrook his account of seeing an army of undead employed by an unscrupulous farmer during the bumper sugar crop of 1918, he took the writer two hours’ ride away to allegedly witness slave zombies himself working in the sugar cane fields. True to his creed of reporting only personal experience, Seabrook got up close and personal: “There was something about them unnatural and strange. They were plodding like brutes, like automatons…The eyes were the worst…in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind but staring, unfocused, unseeing...”
To an audience back home, reading such lurid accounts of far-off events not only gave them a vicarious thrill but Seabrook’s journals were a justification for America’s foreign domination of the territory under the guise of civilising what was seen as a savage land. With this ghoulish interest in mind, the eventual co-opting of the material by Hollywood studios was inevitable, but like Dracula and Frankenstein before it, voodoo mythology was first presented as American entertainment in the theatre. In February 1932, producer and writer Kenneth Webb mounted the play Zombie in New York. It was a cheapjack three-act piece that avoided any of the costly copyright issues that came with translating the previous two horror juggernauts. The play was crude, racist and exploitative, narrowing not only its budget but its focus to one room in a Haitian bungalow, wherein the husband half of a plantation-owning couple dies and then is revived as a zombie by one of the senior native staff to fulfil his plan for estate control. The wife solves the mystery with the aid of two American friends, while the rich history of Haiti is reduced to two black-faced white actors (later replaced with Haitians to garner publicity goodwill) and a staged walking-dead attack.
Reading the plot, Zombie suggests a poor attempt at a single-set, Agatha Christie whodunnit with voodoo elements tacked on. Unsurprisingly it failed in the theatre, but the possibilities for the basic ingredients were not lost on brothers Victor and Edward Halperin (director and producer respectively). They believed that in more talented hands, a voodoo-related story could capitalise on the new wave of cinema horror and set about proving this, much to Webb’s initial excitement and then despair when he realised that they had no need of clearing any rights or recompense for him. (Webb naively thought that somehow he had a claim on anyone using voodoo and its living dead concepts in their story). The Halperins’ commissioned film script wasn’t based on his material, so his law suit was groundless.
The brothers Halperin were taking a mighty gamble with their proposed ‘zombie movie’ as they did not have a major studio to bankroll them. The only form of insurance they could take out was to head-line the film with a recognised star, and this they did by asking Bela Lugosi. He jumped at the chance of the lead role of the suave, mesmeric Murder Legendre soon after finishing the film of Dracula. This was largely due to his dire need to generate income since his contract for the aforementioned smash hit only paid him $500 a week – he’d been low-balled by Universal all too easily when they saw how desperately he wanted to transfer his stage success in the part to the film version. Also, his high-handedness in turning down the role of the Frankenstein monster placed him in temporary disfavour with them, increasing his concerns about where else he could gain employment. This poor bargaining position in the Halperins’ favour attached him to their movie, White Zombie, for $800 a week over just 11 days. Sadly, this repeat of his Dracula exploitation went further when the film turned a $62,500 budget into a surprising $8m box-office take, probably indicative of the public’s burgeoning taste for horror chills.
White Zombie is essentially a love-triangle co-opting voodoo practises and Lugosi’s now crystallised screen persona into a tale with only scant connection to the modern zombie film. A young American couple, Neil and Madeleine Parker - Madge Bellamy and John Harron - are reunited in Haiti and plan to wed. On their coach-drive to the home of plantation owner Charles Beaumont, played by Robert Frazer, they encounter bodies being buried at a crossroads. Their frightened black driver explains the lore we explored earlier about protecting the dead from after-life servitude. We are also introduced to Lugosi with two impactful close-ups of his fiercely staring eyes before he speaks, thus conveying his malevolent hypnotic influence. (At least in this film, charges of racist portrayals are mitigated by having the evil machinations perpetrated by the westerners rather than the ‘natives’).
Lugosi’s Legendre is a dark colleague of Beaumont, who it transpires has designs upon the lovely Madeleine and enlists his occult friend to poison her so that after the funeral he can revive her as a zombified life companion. This of course soon pales when he realises that he can have her pallid presence but never the soul and life she had when alive. After Neil is plagued by nightmares of his dead bride-to-be, he finds her tomb empty and teams up with missionary Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) who follows the clues to Legendre’s cliff-top castle. Madeleine is ordered by Legendre to kill Neil but Bruner prevents her. Neil and Bruner battle a motley crew of zombies Legendre has converted out of his sworn enemies - a witch doctor, a Captain of the Gendarmerie, A Minister of the Interior who resembles a Disney Pirate and an oddly grimacing High Executioner, before breaking the spell held over Madeleine by temporarily knocking out the voodoo maestro. The zombies are dispatched over the edge of the cliff, and the regretful Beaumont, who’d pleaded with Legendre to undo his handiwork, is poisoned into fellow undead slavery, but on being freed from his master joins him in a header over the cliff edge into oblivion. Madeleine is restored to life and the lovers are once again reunited.
In spite of its limitations that make the horror elements feel applied to the film rather than an organic part of the story, White Zombie is not without interest. An early scene showing Legendre’s sugar mill business populated by an army of zombie labourers is atmospheric and amplified by the harsh industrial sound effects of the machinery. Victor Halperin’s use of shadows has drawn comparison in later decades with the work of Val Lewton. Lugosi in the role of Legendre had by now already developed a Svengali showman ‘type’ that Hollywood had been recycling as an evil plot catalyst since The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It is an easy gig for him as the evening-dressed, suave, glowering subjugator of impressionable minds he had already essayed in Dracula and also in 1932’s Murders in the Rue Morgue but it was work and arguably a recognisable niche for him, not yet an imprisonment as Count Dracula would later become. He gives this part a novel touch in the recurring hypnotic reinforcement gesture of touching the finger-tips of both hands together and then rolling the fingers around in a spiralling clasp – a move lovingly emulated by Martin Landau in his portrayal of Lugosi in Ed Wood.

Ultimately White Zombie is mostly of interest for what it heralds in zombie cinema rather than what it contains. Over the next decades the offspring of voodoo rites (and not forgetting bad science) would stir, shamble inexorably forward then break into hair-raising speed into the new millennium…

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