Thursday, October 13, 2022

1930s Zombies

White Zombie
(1932) and The Ghoul (1933)

I really hoped we could have a 1930’s zombie film double feature, but only one of the films I found truly qualifies for a spot here at Movie Churches. It's disappointing. 

I feel confident calling 1933’s The Ghoul a zombie film, but it doesn’t actually have a clergyman. In this British film, Boris Karloff plays Professor Henry Morlan, an Egyptologist (this was after he played the mummy in The Mummy) who believes the god Anubis can bring him back from the dead. Since this is a horror film rather than a mystery pretending to be a horror film, it works. So this is a zombie film with a walking-dead man wreaking havoc.

After Morlant dies, a number of treasure hunters and grave robbers go to his mansion to steal his valuable pieces of Egyptian antiquity. One of those men, Nigel Hartley (Ralph Richardson) pretends to be a clergyman bringing comfort to Morlant’s friends and family. He pretends disdain for Morlant’s fascination with the Egyptian gods (“I can’t believe you would willfully encourage Paganism,” he says), but he’s really just after loot. Unfortunately for him, Morlant the Ghoul comes back from the dead to protect what is his. (Well, maybe not really his. Much of what he has should arguably be returned to Egypt, but we’ll leave that to the international courts.) So I guess this film doesn't count and we don't have a double feature. 

Thankfully, 1932's White Zombie has both a legitimate clergyman and many, many zombies. This film is believed to be the first feature-length zombie film, and it probably couldn’t have been made a few years later after the advent of the Hays Production Code. Even the ad copy was rather racy; one poster read, “She was not dead…Nor alive…Just a White Zombie performing his every desire.”

And that isn’t too far off from the film's plot. A young woman, Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy), arrives in Haiti with plans to marry her fiance, Neil Parker (John Harron). They visit a wealthy plantation owner, Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer), and he falls in love with Madeline. Beaumont hires the voodoo master, “Murder” Legendre (Bela Lugosi), who controls a crew of zombies working a local sugar cane mill (keeping labor costs quite low). He wants Legendre to turn Madeline into a zombie who will obey Beaumont’s every request. Madeline is tricked into drinking a potion, turns into a zombie, and agrees to marry Beaumont. 

Neil goes to the local missionary, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), for help. Bruner is at first baffled by Neil’s story, saying, “I’ve been a missionary here for thirty years and I don’t know what to think.” He has heard of zombies, though, and tells Neil that the legends trace back to ancient Egypt. The missionary had thought the stories were superstition, but he begins to wonder if there is truth to the stories.

He tells Neil that Madeline is in danger of falling into the hands of the local voodoo practitioners, “Better dead than in the hands of natives.” When the missionary sees Madeline in her zombified state, he's outraged. “If I can get my hands on the devil that did this, I’ll make such an example of him every witch doctor on Haiti will be shaking in his sandals.”

Beaumont, on the other hand, regrets seeking Legendre’s assistance and asks him to reverse the process. Legendre refuses and instead zombifies Beaumont, too. He takes Madeline to his fortress. Neil and Dr. Bruner go to rescue her.

Legendre tells Madeline to kill Neil, and she approaches him with a knife. Neil is afraid he has lost Madeline, crying, "The soul is gone, I can’t stand those empty staring eyes. Forgive me, Madeline, forgive me!” Dr. Bruner grabs Madeline, though, and forces her to drop the knife. Legendre uses his mental powers to make the zombies attack Neil and the missionary. When Bruner knocks Legendre unconscious, the zombie spell is broken, and the zombies go over a cliff. Beaumont, also freed of Legendre’s spell, fights him by the cliff, and they both fall to their deaths.

Neil and Madeline are reunited and embrace, but before they can kiss, Dr. Bruner, holding his pipe, asks them, “Have you got a match?” 

The End.

For fans of classic horror, this is a must-see for its place in history. But here at Movie Churches, we appreciate a missionary with common sense and a willingness to risk his own life to save others. He’s not always culturally sensitive. Most disappointingly, Dr. Bruner never prays or refers to Scripture, which keeps us from giving him our highest rating. Nonetheless, he still earns Three Steeples.

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