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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Long, long before there was the band White Zombie, there was the movie White Zombie. This is the movie Rob Zombie watched that inspired the name for his band that would catapult him to international fame. Something tells me that the movie is going to endure much longer than the band’s music.

White Zombie was released a year after Dracula and it is odd to see Bela Lugosi in such a subtle follow up to his iconic breakthrough hit. Dracula was a hit upon its initial release and Bela Lugosi was ascending to a level of stardom that would transcend generations, so why he would agree to do this relatively obscure movie is beyond me. But anyone who loves movies and has seen White Zombie is glad that Lugosi took on this role.

This is another horror classic that we almost lost to time and the elements. All of the copies of the movie were thought destroyed, until one showed up in the 1960’s and we were able to piece together the copy that lives today. It is a little rough to watch, but all of the charm and energy are still there.

This movie did well at the box office, which is really no surprise. What is a surprise is that Bela Lugosi agreed to do the role for only $800. I don’t know if Lugosi did not realized how famous he had become or if he was just desperate, but he only saw a small portion of the significant money that this movie made.

White Zombie is a story about a sugar cane mill owner who turns people into zombies to get them to work in his mill for free. Lugosi is the mill owner and his character’s name is Murder Legendre. Colorful, ain’t it? Into Murder’s world rush a young couple who wish to be married in Haiti, for some reason, and a Haitian plantation owner who the couple just met a couple of days before, yet he convinces the couple to have their wedding at his plantation. Why is the plantation owner being so nice? Because he wants the girl, of course.

Lugosi’s deliberate delivery is absolutely perfect for this movie and his performance only highlights a film filled with great performances. When I first saw this movie I was surprised because I was unaware of any references to zombies in movies prior to the 1970’s. But the term zombie is thrown around a great deal in this movie and the actors, who had almost no template to work from as far as acting like zombies, did a great job.

There is a lot of attention paid in this movie to the unique physical features of Bela Lugosi. His eyes and hands are highlighted often and the way he moves is an integral part of the plot. Whether you like White Zombie or not, you have to admit that it would not work without Bela Lugosi.

This is the kind of movie every horror buff should see for a few reasons. First of all, every fan of horror movies should see every Bela Lugosi picture at least once. Most people only know Lugosi as Dracula, which means they do not have any idea of the tremendous range Lugosi had.

White Zombie is also an extremely creepy movie. You can watch a lot of horror movies in your life and you will be hard-pressed to find one as creepy as White Zombie. From Lugosi’s mannerisms to the constant use of light and shadow to depict emotion, White Zombie works extremely well on a lot of levels and it moves fluidly between those levels.

We will never see anyone like Bela Lugosi ever again and you should take every chance you get to enjoy his brilliance. Even the work he did with Edward D. Wood, Jr. was compelling, in its own way. But White Zombie is one of those movies that helped to establish the Bela Lugosi look that would become a permanent part of film history and pop culture.

George N. Root III is a movie addict and drive-in fanatic. He is just patiently waiting for winter to end so the Sunset Drive-In can open again.

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