Watching the amazing new Blu-ray edition of the Halperin brothers’ classic tomb mushroom of a movie White Zombie (1932), I realized what it meant to love a “cult” movie. Not that White Zombie is typically remembered as “cult,” when it is remembered at all. It is the fustiest of the early ‘30s horror-cycle classics, a Haiti-set, backlot-shot somnambulism in which the utterly bland Madge Bellamy, upon whom every man in sight has designs, is zombified by voodoo master/sugar mill owner Bela Lugosi. It is a film so independently produced that its disconnected, webby, comatose atmosphere not only reflects its subject acutely but also limns an accidental and secret microworld like no other. To have become “cult,” White Zombie would have needed an auteurist jolt of outrageousness, or a searing measure of coolness, or a blast of seminal creative acetylene or something—but instead had only its cheap awkwardness, its weird distance, its antique tarnish to offer.
But “cult” is of course a nettlesome idea, one that harbors a simple urge that I’ll get back to shortly. First, there’s no getting around the fact, as you let the fog of this movie flow around you, that the early-‘30s horror-thriller films were a magnificent and fascinating subgenre unto themselves. From The Bat Whispers (1930) through to the final gout in 1935 of The Bride of Frankenstein, Mad Love and The Raven, we have a self-contained clutch of genre anxieties that famously manifested dynamics of perversion, brutality, occult queasiness and sociophilosophical dementia that Hollywood would quickly grow too timid to pursue further. (Certainly, the supremacist bugbear at the heart of The Island of Lost Souls, The Black Cat, The Raven, the first Frankensteins, etc., became less palatable as the news from Germany accumulated during that decade.) But these movies brought a rich, uncomfortable drink to the table, and were surrounded by a unique technological context that made them, at least in retrospect, all the more beautiful: they were early talkies.
There hasn’t been nearly enough critical appreciation for the nature of early talkies and how much they gain in texture from their mechanical handicaps, especially when compared to films made after 1935. Whether you’re looking at Ernst Lubitsch’s bubbly The Love Parade (1929) or Leontine Sagan’s heartbroken Madchen in Uniform (1931) or Victor Fleming’s tough-talking Red Dust (1932), early talkies, regardless of genre, have everything to do with a creaky innocence, a sense of uncertain melodrama, a theatricality that seems closer to a madman’s tiny rubber room than to an actual theater stage, a self-conscious acting style that can border on the deranged, a threatening degree of archival decay, and an aural current marked by fizzes, audible sutures, unearthly pauses and a disconcerting silence devoid of ambient noises. Pre-Code transgressions, like Bellamy’s scene in bridal underwear in White Zombie, are just final dollops of cake icing. Watching early talkies gives you the sense of watching cave paintings, or porcelain nursery objects come jerkily to life.
As you’d expect, this effect blossomed best in the post-Expressionist horror cycle. If cinema at this stage feels lost and shadowy and primitive, then the qualm and disquiet of something like White Zombie would stand to reap the moody rewards. (There were other horror entries after ‘35, sequels and such, but by then sound film production had become almost intolerably free of kinks and fissures, and therefore free of this beguiling kind of organic resonance.) If White Zombie had been made five years later, it wouldn’t have seemed like a mystery we’d found under a rock, and it’s no surprise to find that it’s never been remade. The film’s essence is integral to the ghostly void of 1932, and once the innocence is gone there’s no retrieving it. (The Halperins—director Victor and producer Edward—did cobble together a sequel in 1936, Revolt of the Zombies, about which another column here seems destined.)
(There is one narrative moment in White Zombie I am compelled to point out, because it might be the oddest two-seconds of early talkie film ever, and no one has, to my knowledge, ever noticed it: at one late moment, the zombified Bellamy is being compelled to knife her knocked-out beau, when a hand in a black cloak appears above her from behind a nearby doorjamb and stays her hand, preventing her. Whose hand this was, or whether it was meant to be an analog bit of subconscious symbolism the producers forgot to use a special effect on, is never explained. Just a hand, in a black cloak.)
So where’s the cult? Well, “cults” in the pop movie realm are ever hardly that; t-shirt ownership, convention attendance and trivia debates are usually as cultish as any movie fan gets, from vintage psychotronica to Star Trek to Harry Potter and beyond. But with White Zombie I felt a belonging, and it had everything to do with the early-talkie vibe, and the film’s creation of a particular sort of place—a moldy, calcified, black-&-gray neverworld where wide-eyed zombies lurch, people talk very slowly, gaping reaction shots last aeons, castles and night skies are hand-crafted (the most transparently painted matte paintings in the history of matte paintings), gothic style reigns (even in Haiti), and shadows huddle in every corner. I loved being there, and knew that others who loved it as I did were part of my club. It’s not a “cult” as those who never loved a certain movie or its conjured universe beyond its storytelling capacities might use the word. Is this the fundamental relationship one might have, as a “cultist” (in the extra-Sarris use of the term, I think), with an otherwise overlooked film, a jonesing for its atmospherics, a yen to visit its odd patch of earth, its gargoyled hallways and dark hills? Can one watch, and rewatch, White Zombie any other way? Or, in what I find the more compelling question, how can anyone watch White Zombie without feeling this dreamy traction?
As a peripheral note, it should be mentioned that the new Kino Blu-ray, due out at the end of the month, contained two versions of the film—both new transfers, but one that is “digitally restored” and one that is “raw.” The contrast between them is instructive: the default digital version is oddly soft and silvery and chromey, while the untouched transfer, featured as a supplement, is filthy with grain, age spots, scratches and an ever-present soundtrack hiss. They’re both fine, but if you’re bellying up to this frail ancient beast, why would you want it run through a hard drive first?
Michael Atkinson writes regularly for The Village Voice, Sight & Sound, In These Times, Time Out Chicago, Fandor, Turner Classic Movies and LA Weekly. His latest books include FLICKIPEDIA and the novel HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT.