White Zombie (Victor Halperin / U.S., 1932):

Crude effects, forthright horrors -- the carriage carrying the main couple (Madge Bellamy, John Harron) travels through nocturnal Haiti and runs across a native burial, eyes are superimposed on the screen in slow triple dissolve (Bela Lugosi's eyes, natch). The movie, scratchy and unforgettable, is an independent, low-budget production by the Halperin Brothers (Victor directed, Edward produced), made as if on a trance following a viewing of Vampyr. The walking dead here are folkloric dread made palpable, silhouetted against a slanted graveyard or, in an unforgettable bit, locked in the endless circles of Lugosi's mowing vat, one lurching slave falls soundlessly into the grinding blades along with the sugar cane. "They're not worried about long hours," Lugosi quips, but death is his real business, so plantation owner Robert Frazer, obsessed with Bellamy, comes for him with a request. The maiden's scarf, along with the incantatory force of clasped hands and caterpillar-brows in close-up, is enough to conjure a soul away from the body; Bellamy and Harron enjoy their honeymoon while Lugosi lurks outside, fashioning a voodoo dolls out of candle wax. Halperin's blunt montage clouds Bellamy's silent-movie gamine visage, then cuts to Lugosi striding in and out of focus toward the lens -- blank-eyed and petrified when seen next, she tinkles "Liebestraum" in the piano in Frazer's lair in the mountains. Lugosi and his undead entourage have since taken over, however, accentuating the pioneering view of zombiedom as possession, emotional and mystical and colonial; the lovebirds share physical space but not spiritual planes, so the film arranges for their rupture as a diagonal split-screen taken from Mamoulian, perhaps. The somnambulism gets spiked with shrieking buzzards, moaning chorales, and more than a bit of dissociated necrophilia, the better to sear its visions onto the screen, and the mind Tourneur, Bergman, Romero and Fulci are to draw from it. With Joseph Cawthorn, Brandon Hurst, and Clarence Muse. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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