And the Dead Shall Rise...
The early cinematic zombies were a lot different than the
gut-wrenching, brain-sucking creatures found on recent screens. Instead of an inherent
need to kill as soon as they left their graves, the early walking dead were usually woken
for a specific purpose under the wilful gaze of a madman who seeks cheap labour, or a
scientist wanting to help the war effort with invincible armies. Although the word
"zombie" was introduced to American audiences with the book about Haitian
voodoo, Magic Island by William B. Seabrook in 1929, cinema's zombies had begun
their evolution as far back as 1919.
Although not strictly a zombie film,
the producers of Das Kabinet des Doktor Caligari (1919) use the word "somnambulist"
to describe the sleepwalking state of Cesare, (Conrad
Veidt), an emaciated, white faced creature under the control of the insane hypnotist
Dr. Caligari, (Werner Krauss). Yet Cesare shows all the characteristics of a living
corpse while going about his hideous deeds at the whim of Caligari who furthers his
side-show career by making predictions and then having Cesare ensure that they come true.
When students Francis, (Fredrich Feher), and Alan, (Hans Heinz von Twardowski), visit the
Holstenwall fairground with their friend Jane, (Lil
Dagover), Caligari predicts that Alan will not live till morning. Sure enough during
the night Alan mysteriously dies. Convinced that Caligari is behind the recent spate of
deaths in the area, Francis discovers that Caligari is substituting Cesare with a dummy
while the somnambulist carries out his bidding. When Jane is threatened by Cesare, Francis
intervenes and Cesare dies from exhaustion. The police give chase to Caligari who flees to
an asylum where he takes his place as governor, but confronted with
Cesare's corpse, the doctor becomes deeply disturbed and is led away in a strait-jacket.
The final scene shows Francis in an asylum relating his story to an eighteenth century
hypnotist named Caligari.
The film is best remembered as a classic of the German Expressionist period with its
stark, twisted sets and inventive use of light and shadow, however, CALIGARI also
boasts the first shuffling steps of the walking corpses that were to grace the big screen
"She was not
dead...not alive...just a WHITE ZOMBIE"
The first time "zombie" was used on
film, it came from the often forgotten White Zombie
starring non other than Bela Lugosi.
As Murder Legendre, an evil Haitian hypnotist, Lugosi gives one of the
best portrayals of his career, a role that allowed the actor's dark wit to show through.
Unfortunately, as Bela Lugosi often found much of the growing amount of dialogue in his
other roles extremely difficult, few of his skills as an artist were rarely evident.
Despite the furore created by the advent of sound, The Halperin
brothers believed that they should keep the dialogue to a minimum and recapture some
of the visual flair of the great silent films. In addition, the low budget, (reportedly at
$50,000) and the rushed two week shooting schedule on the Universal backlot, inadvertently
created the right atmosphere and creepiness needed for the story. This made it seem a lot
older than some of the other, more famous, horror films made around the same time.
Madelaine Short, (Madge Bellamy), and her fiancée Neil Parker,
(John Harron), are invited to a Haitian manor by the wealthy Charles Beaumont, (Robert
Frazer), to be married after offering Neil a position as an agent for his company. The
couple oblige, but after witnessing a funeral taking place in the middle of the road,
and a brief encounter with sinister sugar mill owner Murder Legendre, (Lugosi),
Madelaine and Neil begin to have doubts. Secretly Charles Beaumont desires to have
Madelaine for his very own and arranges with Legendre to put Madelaine under a spell. Legendre, a hypnotist who populates his mill with the walking corpses of
his enemies as slave labour, creates a wax effigy of Madelaine and
plunges it into a candle flame. At the same moment, the newly married Madelaine collapses
and dies in her distraught husband's arms. Dr. Bruner, (Joseph Cawthorn), the clergyman
who had recently married the couple, now performs Madelaine's burial service, not knowing that the evil Legendre will
soon steal her corpse and turn her into a zombie for Charles Beaumont. Not unfamiliar with
local voodoo lore, Bruner convinces Neil that his wife may be one of the living dead under
Legendre's control. Meanwhile Beaumont is disappointed at Madelaine's
emotionless state and regrets his actions, but when he confronts Legendre,
the hypnotist reveals his own desires for Madelaine and his plan to turn Beaumont into a
zombie with the drug that he has just drunk from his glass. Neil and Bruner arrive at
Legendre's clifftop castle, however, Neil collapses in a weary heap and Legendre wills
Madalaine to kill him. Bruner prevents her from doing so and manages to knock Legendre
unconcious for a time during which the army of zombies walk off the high castle wall to
the sea below. Legendre revives and is about
to drug the two interlopers when Beaumont in his semi-zombified state knocks Legendre off
the castle wall and perishes in the attempt. Madelaine is restored to normal in Neil's
Not without its flaws, this is still a worthy addition to the classic horror movie stable.
In some places the story is slowed to a crawl and a lot of the plot elements now seem
dated, but all the while the technical prowess of cinematographer Arthur Martinelli shines
through, while the interesting use of wipes, shadows and an atmosphere not unlike that of
Carl Dreyer's Vampyr,
maintain attention. Also refreshing is the absence of a comic relief character which
allows the dreamy, fairytale style to continue uninterrupted throughout.
Although Kenneth Webb, creator of the play Zombie that had a short run in New York
in 1932, sued the Halperin's, they successfully countered that the word itself is in the
public domain and can be used by anyone.
The Halperin brothers were promptly
sued by the financiers of White Zombie, Amusement Securities, when they embarked
work on a follow up film titled Revolt of the
Zombies in 1936. Amusement Securities, claimed that to have another zombie film on the
market at the same time constituted unfair competition. The claim was not upheld and
Victor and Edward Halperin were able to release their film, but it did not find the same
success as its predecessor.
To demonstrate their invulnerability to bullets, a
Cambodian high priest brings a company of zombies to the Franco-Austrian front during the
First World War.
Armond Loque, (Dean Jagger), a student of dead languages and part of an allied post-war
team travelling to Anger in Cambodia to destroy the zombie formula, resolves to claim the
document that tells of the hiding place of the formula. He finds the document in a temple
near the statue of a multi-limbed idol, but not only does he transform a native tribe and
his servant Buna, (Teru Shimada), into zombies, he uses his new found power to force
pretty Claire Duval, (Dorothy Stone), to marry him. When he realises that Claire will
never love him, he frees his zombie slaves by leaping to his death.
Unfortunately, Jagger was no replacement for Lugosi and despite the use of Lugosi's close
up "eye" shots from the previous film, the whole is a dreary clone that has none
of the fairytale atmosphere and generates little interest.
1940 saw PRC's release of the little known Condemned Men,
a low budget zombie romp directed by William "one shot" Beaudine with an all
black cast including character actor Mantan Moreland. Appearing in numerous low budget
films of the 40's as a comic relief character, Moreland also repeats this role in King of the Zombies and Revenge of the
Paramount, eager to follow up the success of The Cat and
the Canary (1939) cast the film's star Bob Hope in another comedy vehicle titled The Ghost
Breakers (1940). Although filled with the similar trappings of his previous excursion,
including an heiress, a gloomy castle and a hidden fortune, Hope as radio personality
Larry Lawrence, his servant, (Willie
Best), and heiress Mary Carter, (Paulette
Goddard), encounter ghosts and a zombie played by Noble
Although much darker than CAT... with some genuinely creepy scenes, Hope is the one that
shines in what many consider to be his best performance. Willie Best matches the star's
cowardice line for line, but again it is Hope's one-liners that are most memorable. In one
example, a thunderstorm over New York City prompts Larry to comment "Basil
Rathbone must be throwing a party."
Poster and lobby card stills courtesy of Ronald V. Borst
and DVD Search