Bela Lugosi was a legendary Hungarian – American actor. He was most famous for playing Count Dracula in the classic 1931 film.
Bela Lugosi was born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugos, kingdom of Hungary (now Lugoj, Romania). He later changed his name to Lugosi after his home town. Bela dropped out of school at age twelve and began playing small roles in local theaters. In 1911, he moved to Budapest, Hungary and played many small roles with the National Theater of Hungary.
World War I interrupted Bela Lugosi’s acting career. He served on the Russian Front and was wounded in action as a captain in the ski patrol of the Austro – Hungarian Army.
After the war, Bela returned to acting and appeared in several silent Hungarian films. But he was forced to flee to Germany during the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. He continued acting in German movies. Then, a year later, Bela left Germany for the United States.
When Bela first came to the USA, he worked as a laborer but eventually began acting in a small company that performed for immigrant audiences. He performed in his first Broadway play in 1922 and his first American silent film in 1923.
Bela Lugosi had his big break when he was approached to star in a Broadway production of Dracula. Bela’s Dracula was unlike any before him. “Handsome and mysterious, Lugosi’s Dracula was at once so alluring and so dreadful that audiences gasped when he first opened his mouth to speak.” The successful production played on Broadway then toured the USA for two years. The play was so successful that Universal Studios decided to make a movie starring Bela Lugosi. The film, Dracula, was such a huge hit that it has forever linked Bela Lugosi with the character of Count Dracula.
That close link, in fact, tainted his later acting career. Bela was typecast and found that he could not escape the role of horror film villain. His accent also limited his roles and by 1936, Bela was stuck in B films, often in small roles “where he was obviously used for “name value” only.”
In 1938, there was renewed public interest in Lugosi’s Dracula and that led to an increased number of movie roles for Bela. But the success did not last. Bela had become dependent on morphine because of pain from old war injuries. Movie offers dwindled and Bela was once again stuck – “less and less frequently – in obscure, low-budget features.” Bela Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956 at age 73.
A role in a little independent film titled White Zombie is often considered to be Bela Lugosi’s best performance after Dracula. White Zombie is a “1932 American independent Pre-Code horror film directed and produced by brothers Victor Halperin and Edward Halperin.” It was produced on a shoestring budget of only $50,000 – $62,000 (shoestring even in 1932) and filmed in only eleven days. Most of the players in White Zombie were faded silent film stars and most of the sets were borrowed from previous Universal horror films.
Bela Lugosi, to his eternal regret, took the White Zombie role of Murder Legendre, a cruel white Haitian voodoo master, for a fee of only $500 to $900 dollars. But despite his small fee Bela is by far the best thing about the movie. One review says:
“The divinely satanic-looking Bela Lugosi sinks his teeth into his best role since Dracula, a languorous hypnotist and voodoo master who dominates the film with his assured bearing and cruel control.”
In the film White Zombie, plantation owner Beaumont (played by Robert Frazer) falls in love with a young woman he meets while on a ship to Haiti. The woman, Madeleine (played by Madge Bellamy), is traveling to Haiti to marry her fiancé Neil (played by John Harron). When Beaumont cannot lure Madeleine away from her love, he makes a deal with Murder Legendre (played by Bela Lugosi). Murder Legendre is “a shadowy character who exercises supernatural powers over the natives in his Haitian domain.”
White Zombie is considered to be “the first feature length zombie film and has been described as the archetype and model of all zombie movies.” The film manages to be a talkie yet still capture the feel of silent movies. That silent movie feel helps add to the sense of dread that lingers throughout the movie. Another review says:
“The atmosphere of dread is pungent, the use of sound is inspired (the creaking heard in the sugar mill is the aural equivalent of Chinese water torture and the shrieks of a vulture are unnerving) and the makeup by the great Jack Pierce (who also created the looks of all the classic Universal monsters) and Carl Axcelle is minimal but effective.”
Actually I thought the shrieking of the vulture was horribly annoying and grating. And that is only one of the problems with the movie White Zombie. Despite the wonderful atmosphere, despite the great Bela Lugosi, the movie is really….well….not as good as a classic should be.
Other than Bela Lugosi, who completely dominates the film, the other players are horrible. Madge Bellamy is atrocious. Her first line and her last line in the movie are so stiff they nearly creak. She does do a fine job of looking like a helpless waif-like porcelain doll drifting about the castle. But there is absolutely nothing to her that would make every man in the movie fall in instant love / lust. I was actually surprised to find out that she had been a popular leading lady in many silent movies of the 1920s because she certainly is not showing any acting ability in White Zombie. Dead eyed, blank faced zombification almost seems to be her natural state.
The rival leading men, John Harron as Neil the almost husband and Robert Frazer as the lust mad Beaumont, chew the scenery wildly all about the vacuous Madeleine. Neil grieves and raves madly until he is delirious and Beaumont spends the first half of the film panting stupidly after Madeleine and the last half staggering around half zombified. Both of them have huge numbers of films to their credit (168 for John Harron and 229 for Robert Frazer) but both of them seemed to have just coasted along with no lasting legacy other than White Zombie.
Besides our four principle players, we also have actor Joseph Cawthorn as Dr. Bruner, the missionary and would be zombie-master-destroyer. Joseph Cawthorn had a twenty year long career on Broadway and in films but he is mostly known as being comic relief. He plays Dr. Bruner as a good natured, knowledgeable but slightly dotty missionary. He seems the most at ease in his role (besides, of course, Bela Lugosi as Legendre) but his character does not really seem to fit in the brooding darkness of the movie.
Of course the most important part of any zombie movie, especially the very first zombie movie, are the actual zombies and these zombies hold up surprisingly well. They are a very far cry from the rapid and ravenous flesh eaters of modern hit shows like The Walking Dead. These zombies are firmly rooted in evil magic and superstition. Voodoo master Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) uses a combination of potions and will power to enslave his victims. They lumber about blindly, carrying out all his deadly orders but they take no action at all on their own. They can’t deviate from last orders in any way. When one zombie sugar mill worker topples into the sugar grinder, he never cries out and the other workers never notice or hesitate in their work at all. Although White Zombie does seem a bit confused about exactly how victims become zombified. Legendre’s personal zombie henchmen don’t seem quite the same as zombie Madeleine. And the potion effects varies wildly between the hench-zombies, Madeleine, Beaumont, and Neil and Dr. Bruner. But still, the zombies look eerie and menacing.
Here are a few of my favorite lines from White Zombie:
- The first two lines, including Madeleine’s horrible acting: Neil notices strange activity in the road, “Looks like a burial.” Madeleine asks, “In the road?”
- Neil is upset that their coach driver has been driving too fast, “Why did you drive like that, you fool! We might have been killed!” The driver responds, “Worse than that, monsieur, we might have been caught.” “Caught?” asks Neil, “By whom? Those men you spoke to?” “They are not men, monsieur. They are dead bodies.”
- Legendre is late meeting Beaumont, “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, monsieur. I’ve been away on a journey, seeking more men for my mill.” “Men?” questions Beaumont. Legendre corrects him, “They work faithfully, they are not worried about long hours. You … you could make good use of men like mine on your plantation.”
- Beaumont is having second thoughts, “There must be another way.” But Legendre is firm, “There is no other way!”
- Beaumont is appalled that Legendre has brought his henchmen, “Zombies?” Legendre assures him, “Yes. They are my servants. Did you think we could do it alone? In their lifetimes, they were my enemies.”
- Neil is certain Madeleine is dead, “I kissed her as she lay there in the coffin; and her lips were cold.”
- Dr. Bruner is worried, “Before we get through with this thing we may uncover sins that even the devil would be ashamed of.”
- Beaumont regrets what he did to Madeleine, “I thought that beauty alone would satisfy. But the soul is gone. I can’t bear those empty, staring eyes.”
- Legendre taunts Beaumont, “Can you still hear me? It is unfortunate you are no longer able to speak. I would be interested to hear you describe your own symptoms. You see you are the first man to know what had happened. None of the others did.”
- Neil encounters Legendre and his zombies, “Who are you? And what are they?” Legendre sneers, “For you, my friend, they are the angels of death.”
Overall, White Zombie is an interesting film. Fans of horror or zombies should not miss it. The zombies are eerie and scary, the film oozes a dread filled atmosphere, and Bela Lugosi is fantastically evil and menacing. Yes, the other actors are dreadful, especially Madge Bellamy as Madeleine. She hinders the film because she is not able to show any reason why so many men desire her other than that she looks pale and helpless and her delivery of her lines are so incredibly stilted it’s almost ridiculous.
Young movie fans should beware of the spookiness of the zombies and the satanic look of Legendre. Also the shrieking of the vulture is extremely loud and nerve shattering. There is one typically Pre-Code scene where Madeleine is standing about admiring herself in her bridal veil and 1930s style underwear.
The Internet Archive has seven versions of White Zombie. I tried at least part of all of them. The movie has some small jumps throughout because of breaks in the film (White Zombie was actually a “lost” film until a print was discovered in the 1960s). Some of the versions have good sound quality, some are almost drowned out by scratchiness and static. Some Ogg video versions have smaller pictures with a black frame, others have regular sized pictures. The video is dark but not so dark that viewers will have trouble seeing the action. White Zombie is only a little over 66 minutes long.
Of course, the very best thing about White Zombie is that it is FREE in the Public Domain at the Internet Archive.
The most popular version of White Zombie has over 96,000 views but the audio is filled with static noise. The Ogg video does not have a frame around the picture. Please click this link to watch the most popular version.
The second most popular version has more than 62,000 views. This is the version I watched all the way through. The Ogg video does have a frame around the picture but the audio is clear of static. Note, however, that one review claims the MPEG2 has incorrect aspect ratio. Please click this link to watch version #2.
The third most popular version has more than 36,000 views, good audio, and a frame around the picture in the Ogg video. Click this link to watch version #3.
Version #4 has more than 3,000 views, no frame in the Ogg video, but lots of scratchiness in the audio. Please click this link to watch version #4.
Version #5 has more than 900 views. There is no frame in the Ogg video and the audio seems good. Click this link to watch version #5.
Version #6 has more than 800 views. The Ogg video has a frame but there is no audio static. Click this link to watch version #6.
The last version has more than 500 views. The Ogg video has a frame but the audio is good, with no static. Please click this link to watch version #7.