Credited with creating the archetype and model of a zombie, White Zombie (1932) is considered the first movie with a zombie in it. There have been many themes borrowed from the film (people returning from the dead, blank stares, and the zombies performing manual labor), showcasing its hold on cinema. While White Zombie may have been known to influence a whole wave of zombie movies, it also influenced pop culture and horror in general.
The main character, Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi), uses tropes of his classic Dracula adaptation. He has a strong entrancing stare, hypnotizing those who look at him and demanding attention in every sequence he's in. All eyes are on him as he navigates his scenes, sporting a widow’s peak, a suit, and chiseled facial hair. Bela Lugosi, at this time, had become quite desirable after his role in Dracula, inspiring a whole wave of charismatic villains that we see in movies today.
The female lead, played by Madge Bellamy, is an entranced lover named Madeleine Short. After she garners the attention of an onlooker, Murder turns her into a zombie at the request of Charles, who has become completely smitten by Madeleine. Though she’s a devoted lover (some might call her a slave), this is not the kind of attention Charles was seeking from his partner. The rest of the story unfolds as we follow Murder’s undead creations.
While the zombies themselves are quite a different look than that of modern day zombies portrayed in tv shows and movies, White Zombie features creepers with protruding eyes and chalk white skin, adding to their lifeless demeanor. These zombies work together in a way that’s almost machine-like, delivering the genre of horror that spotlighted monsters mobbing together, acting as a single hive-mind. Horror movies have borrowed the lifeless gait of White Zombie in many different monster forms, from spirits to Frankenstein. The Ghost Breakers, King of the Zombie, Carnival of Souls, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Plague of the Zombies - just to name a few - are all films that feature these types of lifeless or hive-mind designs.
With the introduction of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, zombie movies became much more popular and mainstream. The film featured a zombie with similar attributes to White Zombie’s portrayal. Slow and lifeless, these zombies arose from the earth with their pale and sickly colored skin to wreak havoc on us all. This was the birth of the zombie genre with White Zombie playing a huge role in the creation of these dead souls.
Overall, White Zombie has presented many ideas about zombies that can still be seen in horror movies today, continuing to live on throughout history as a staple of the horror genre. Not stopping at horror, we even see the film's impact today on mainstream media, influencing popular bands such as Rob Zombie's White Zombie. It has sewn and weaved its way throughout much of horror and today’s culture, making White Zombie a timeless piece that can be enjoyed by all.
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