"It's a funeral, Mademoiselle. They are afraid of the men who steal dead bodies, so they dig the graves in the middle of the road where people pass all the time."
So begins both Madeleine Short's and the audience's "introduction to our West Indies." This wonderful little 1932 horror film is a cult classic, though known mainly because of the presence of Bela Lugosi (a year after he starred in Dracula) or the music group that took its name from the film. Unlike many of the movies Lugosi spent much of his career slumming in, this one is a true find.
All the more interesting is that a film this good and well-made wasn't even a studio picture. It was made by Halperin Productions. Huh? well, the director is Victor Halperin (who, along with pretty much everyone else in the cast and crew, never really escaped low budget sub-B movies)the producer was his brother, Edward. And despite some of the creakiness in the cinematic technique, the money was put to good use, getting a nicely shot, generally well acted, good looking film.
Madeleine is in Haiti where she'll marry her fiance, Neil. A local plantation owner named Beaumont (who is obsessively in love with her) has invited them to wed on his estate (the set of the facade is quite impressive given the low budget and very well dressed with detail and foliage). To complete his appearance of being a nice, helpful friend, he has promised to give Neil a banking job back in the States, even though he has other plans ("what you are planning is dangerous," says Silver, his servant).
Shortly after the funeral, they come upon a strange man while asking for directions.Bela Lugosi (no matter what role he played, you couldn't look at him and not see Lugosi1) as "Murder" Legendre, owner of large sugar holdings and operating mills. He does not speak, but glares at them with his mesmerizing eyes. The horses get spooked by some mysterious men walking over the hill and the coachman takes off. But not before Legendre retrieves the woman's scarf.
Neil is upset, thinking they might have been hurt in the rapid departure but the coachman tells his it could have been worse, they "might've been caught." He explains that they are not men but "dead bodies," "zombiesthe living dead. Corpses taken from their graves and made to work in sugar mills and fields at night." Welcome to Haiti.
The last part about "night" is key. Nearly every scene is shot at or takes place during night (and cold, apparently, in some shots you can see actors' breath). This movie has a great eerie sense about it, shown through the cinematography. So much dark that is suggests German expressionism and film noir at times. From the horror movie spectrum, it evokes the later films of producer Val Lewton, whose superb Cat People (1942) is all about shadow and mood. Along with the well-constructed sets (as with the estate, nicely decorated), especially a disturbing sugar mill, the movie looks good enough to be from one of the majors. Even the use of painted backdrops (quite well done) in some scenes doesn't detract from the atmosphere of the film.
There they meet a local missionary named Bruno who is suspicious of Beaumont's motives but too nice to tell them to stop the wedding. Meanwhile, Beaumont's true feelings for the girl are revealed in conversation with his servant. Silver just doesn't know how much she means to him, how he'd "sacrifice anything in the world for her. Nothing matters if I can't have her." Later that night, Neil sees him get into a coach with a mysterious stranger.
Beaumont is taken to one of Legendre's sugar mills where zombies work in silence, no sound but the creaking and groaning of the grinding/cutting, as they move like automatons. One even falls into the machine and is silently torn apart. As Legendre says, "they work faithfully, they are not worried about long hours."2 One of the great scenes in horror.
He meets with Legendre (and his widow's peak, arched eyebrows and forked beard) and discusses his desire to "win" over Madeleine. With the wedding that night, he is becoming desperate, suggesting that if she disappears, maybe she'll forget about Neil. Legendre dismisses that notion, saying he has seen her eyes and while she can love, she can't love him. On the other hand, "there is a way" and "it costs." Beaumont swears he'll do anything to have her and he is shown a small box with a substance in it. It only takes a "pinpoint." It can be put in a glass or a flower. Beaumont hesitates, declaring that he'll find another way ("there is no other way") and he's left with the drug, which Legendre knows he'll eventually use.
With the wedding about to take place, he makes an attempt to convince her, saying "you can raise me up to paradise or blast my world into nothingness." She refuses to even consider his proposal. As a final gift, he presents her with a flower. And Neil and Madeleine marry.
Something else is going on. Legendre is outside, playing with the scarf and carving some wax in some ritual. Above him sits a vulture (a symbol used throughout the filmit is said that "a cloud of vultures always hovers over the house of the living dead," even if there is only money for one, it seems). Inside, the couple and their host are toasting the occasion. She is handed a glass of wine and asked to read Neil's fortune. She "sees" love and happiness, but when she looks again, she sees Legendre's face"I see death." At this point the scarf and wax effigy of Madeleine is being burned in the lamplight. She collapses, dead.
She is entombed on the island and Neil drowns his sorrow in a bottle. He's haunted by his loss and even sees visions of her. Elsewhere, Beaumont is met by Legendre and his zombie servants for the purposes of retrieving the "flower." He is introduced to the servants, men who were all officials or political ministers on the islandincluding the high executioner who had once tried to execute Legendre. She is removed from the tomb just in time to avoid a distraught Neil coming to visit his departed. Almost every shot in tomb is from the back of the niche where the coffin is placed. A nice atmospheric touch and pretty stylish for 1932.3
Neil tells Bruno what he's found (or didn't find). He's told that it could be two things: a "death cult" that uses the bones of people in its rituals and ceremonies, or "she's not dead." Neil cannot believe that ("her lips were cold"). Bruno explains that the superstition is that the zombies are dead but it isn't quite true. Even island law refers to the subject, discussing "drugs or other practices which produce lethargic comaor lifeless sleep." It is considered "attempted murder no matter what result follows" (see "Trivia" notes below). At that point, Neil wonders if Beaumont is not responsible. Bruno thinks not since these practices are "native." They decide to investigate even though by the end they might find "sins even the devil would be ashamed of."
Cut to an exterior of a castle (Legendre's) atop sheer rocky cliffs (painted) with waves cashing against the shore. This is where Madeleine has been taken. Beaumont has found that his victory is hollow. She is not the woman he fell in love with, this person sitting, playing the piano in a dulled, mechanical way, staring at nothing. She ignores jewelry he holds near herrealizing that they cannot "bring back the light to those eyes." While he had thought that "beauty alone would satisfy," he found it worthless without the soul, leaving only "empty, staring eyes."
Legendre arrives and is asked to take her "back" ("back to the grave?"). Beaumont wants him to "put the life back into her eyes" but is reminded just how those eyes would view him once she is aware what happened. But he is resolute: "better to see hatred in them" than the "dreadful emptiness." But Legendre has no intention of helping, he has other plans for her, letting Beaumont know just how easy it would be to suffer the same fate"only a pinpoint." In fact, Beaumont now realizes he will become one of the living dead. Silver tries to help but is mesmerized by Legendre and led away by the zombie servants, screaming as he meets his demise.
Meanwhile, Bruno and Neil continue their search, eventually coming to the cliffs below the castle. Another vulture appears screaming (the thirdone plasters itself against the window in the previous scene in the castle). It is almost a sign. While Neil lies resting on the beach and Bruno leaves to go check the castle, Madeleine walks out on the balcony of her new home (the maids speculate whether she remembers something from her lifethough no one is supposed to). Almost like a siren's call (through a series of odd split screen shots and unconventional wipes), Neil knows she is there (it isn't entirely clear if he actually sees her or if its some internal bond that draws them together). He rushes madly toward the castle.
Neil comes upon the large room where Legendre is carving another effigy and cruelly allowing the helpless Beaumont to consciously feel himself turn into a zombie. He is made to faint and Madeleine is summoned with the intention to murder Neil with a dagger to the heart. Just before she plunges it into him, a hand snakes out from behind some drapes and takes the weapon from her. She flees and Neil awakes to give chase. He catches he poised on the edge of the cliffs and tries to get her to recognize him.
While temporarily saved from falling, Legendre and his servants approach and surround the couple. Neil pulls a revolver which is, of course, useless. The zombies move toward him, meaning to push him over the side. Just then, Bruno arrives and clubs Legendre over the head, breaking his control. One by one, the mindless ones walk over the edge. But Madeleine is not cured. For a brief moment she begins to smile, cut short by Legendre regaining conciousness.
They chase him but he throws a vial of some kind on the ground, releasing smoke and causing the two to cough, stopping them in their tracks. Weakened but still able to assert control, Legendre prepares to work some more of his influence. Then Beaumont, not yet a full zombie, struggles over and manages to push him over the side of the staircase, dashing him on the rocks below (preceded by arrival number four of the vulture). Beaumont then topples over the edge, himself. Screaming, the vulture flies away. There is no need for its presence now that this is no longer the house of the living dead.
Slowly, Madeleine smiles again, the life once again brought to her eyes. She tells Neil that she "dreamed...."
1I'd be willing to make an exception for his rather good performance (in quite a bit of makeup) in 1939's Son of Frankenstein as "Ygor" (yes, that is the spelling).
2There's enough here to make the movie into some treatise on the oppression of workers in colonial situations. I'm not going to do that.
3A nice comparison would be with the rather static and stagy (revealing its roots as a play) camera work from Tod Browning's version of Dracula the year before. Another would be similarly nice work in the Spanish language version of Dracula (superior to Browning's) that had been filmed on the same sets at night during production.
Trivia: My copy of the tape comes from Sinister Cinema (a great source for old, forgotten genre films). The box (you can specially order them with color wraparound covers) includes a reproduction of a poster for the film. The poster notes that "The practice of Zombiism is punishable by death in Haiti! Yet, Zombiism is being practiced in this country. Look around you! Stranger things are happening than you ever dreamed."
It also includes what it claims to be an "ACTUAL EXTRACT FROM THE PENAL CODE OF HAITI" (article 249). "Also shall be qualified as attempted murder the employment of drugs, hypnosis or any other occult practice which produces lethargic coma, or lifeless sleep and if the person (Zombie) has been buried it shall be considered murder no matter what result follows." I cannot verify if this really is from some previous Haitian penal code. Makes good advertising copy for the film, though. Which was quite successful in its time.
(Sources: personal copy of the film on video, some cast and production information checked with the IMDB)