Tuesday, August 6, 2013

White Zombie

Coming out at a time when people still identified movies with sound as “talkies,” White Zombie bears a number of distinctions: for being one of the earliest pre-Romero zombie films (if not the first), for being Bela Lugosi’s most recognizable role (behind Dracula, of course), and most significantly to us, the inspiration behind one of the greatest metal bands of all time. But does this octogenarian shocker still have anything to say to a generation that’s seen zombies co-starring with Brad Pitt and rubbing elbows with Don Draper on America’s premier basic cable network? Thankfully for all of us, we have the Scorecard’s nanobots to let us know.
  • For giving a name to the band that defined this technician’s teen years. = +25pts 
  • If the theme for the opening credits is any indication, this movie is going to be pretty racist. = -15pts 
  • It’s only fitting that the protagonists of a horror movie set in Haiti should be the two whitest people on the face of the earth. = -10pts 
  • GAAAAH! Disembodied Bela Lugosi eyes! = +28pts 
  • Ironically, casting a voodoo spell that transforms a woman into a zombie is not the creepiest thing that Bela Lugosi can do with the scarf he stole from her. = -3pts 
  • Mr. Beaumont’s Haitian plantation seems to be the one place in the ‘30s where you weren’t allowed to smoke. = +2pts 
  • Protip: If a wealthy plantation owner offers to host your wedding on his palatial estate in Haiti, maybe think twice before you take him up on it. Also, what the hell are you doing in Haiti? = -4pts 
  • A conversation between Harold McLernon (editor) and Victor Halperin (director):
    MCLERNON: So, this scene between Beaumont and his butler, where Beaumont alludes to his shady motives surrounding the young couple—how important would you say that is?
    HALPERIN: Well, it establishes a sense of mystery about the character and feeds the audience’s…
    MCLERNON: Oh. ‘Cause I just kind of cut away from it somewhere in the middle of the scene.
    HALPERIN: …Okay. So how much would you say got…?
    MCLERNON: And the next scene was boring, so I cut us in somewhere in the middle of that, too.
    HALPERIN: The next scene? You mean the one where Beaumont and the young couple meet for the first time and…
    MCLERNON: Yeah, I wasn’t really feeling any of that. “Blah, blah, blah,” just cut to the chase, am I right?
    HALPERIN: But you dropped us into the scene literally while Beaumont was mid-sentence. The audience is going to have no idea what the hell they were talking about.
    MCLERNON: Whatever. We’ll fix it in post.
    MCLERNON: Man, are you going to be this much of a prima donna about everything? = -10pts 
  • The main product of Bela Lugosi’s zombie-run mill appears to be fart noises. = +6pts 
  • To the film’s credit, the black zombies appear to be played by actual black people. = +15pts 
  • The same can’t be said for the Asian zombies. = -15pts 
  • If Beaumont and Bela Lugosi are literally the only two living bodies in the mill, why does Bela need to whisper his plan into Beaumont’s ear? = -3pts 
  • I prefer to believe that Bela Lugosi’s conversations in real life were marked by just as many abrupt pauses and baleful glares as the ones he has in his films. = +23pts 
  • You can call that stuff a zombie potion or whatever, but today we know that Bela just slipped Beaumont a vial of liquid roofies. = -8pts 
  • Every girl’s dream wedding reception consists of her and her husband sitting in an empty banquet hall with her husband’s lecherous boss, right? = -3pts 
  • Madeline sees Bela Lugosi’s face in the bottom of her glass before collapsing into a heap on the floor. Coincidentally, that’s also how we at the PCS know when we’ve had enough for the night. = +9pts 
  • The bar scene is a pretty great example of post-silent era cinematography. = +30pts 
  • Dr. Bruner, the minister who married Neil and Madeline is also an expert on zombies. Also, as a side note, this is only the second Bela Lugosi film that I’ve seen, but yet again his nemesis is an elderly academic. Was that in his contract or something? = -2pts 
  • This line: “Surely you don’t think she’s alive? In the hands of natives? Oh, no, better dead than that.” = -20pts (For making us feel like there may have been an N-word cut in post for this scene.) 
  • Did the filmmakers think that the audience wouldn’t notice that suddenly Neil and Dr. Bruner are standing in front of Bruner’s desk? = -11pts 
  • So, Bela Lugosi’s zombies aren’t so much an undead horde brought back to life through arcane magic, as much as hapless slaves kept in thrall through a combination of drugs and hypnosis. = No score, just figured the rest of this would make more sense if you knew that. 
  • For giving us the White Zombie drinking game: every time Bela Lugosi stares directly into the camera, take a drink. = +10pts 
  • A song for Beaumont: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSih4o2YfmA = +8pts
  • And, at last, we have our first white dude in black face. We guess you just couldn’t trust an important role like “witch doctor” to one of those colored folks. = -30pts 
  • Bela Lugosi orders Madeline to stab her own husband as he lay unconscious. That’s some cold-blooded shit, B.L. = +6pts 
  • Apparently shooting ineffectually at the ground is not the way to kill a zombie. These were pre-Romero years, so we were all still groping in the dark on this one. = +3pts 
  • It was pretty well established in a previous scene that zombies are just living people suffering from mind control. So are we supposed to be cool with Bela Lugosi’s entire zombie horde throwing itself off a cliff, just because the pretty white girl survived? = +5pts (Yeah, we’re actually pretty cool with that.) 
  • Bela Lugosi’s most arcane voodoo secret was how he turned himself into a mannequin before landing on those rocks in the water below. = -2pts 
Total Score = +33pts
Available on: Netflix Streaming, budget video bins (seriously)

White Zombie is nothing if not a product of its times. While it benefits from the (recently ended) silent era’s tradition of striking visuals, it also has to contend with the other baggage of early ‘30s: over-emotive silent film actors struggling to find the right pitch in the talkies, a ludicrously exoticized vision of Haiti, and white people playing roles that were meant for non-white people. At a quick and dirty 65 minutes, it’s definitely not the worst piece of zombie-related entertainment you could spend your time on (Warm Bodies? Gross), but not exactly a demonoid phenomenon either.

Score Technician: Joe Hemmerling

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