Madeline (Bellamy) and Neil (Harron) head to Haiti to get married, at the invitation of Beaumont, some dude they barely know, and the arrangement somehow, shockingly, goes wrong. Turns out Beaumont’s fallen in love with Madeline, feelings he expresses by subtly hitting on her as he’s walking her down the aisle. But bad wedding planning is the least of the young lovers’ problems.
Haiti, according to longtime missionary Dr. Brunner (Joseph Cawthorn), “is full of nonsense and superstition,” but worst are the no-nonsense powders that put people into a vegetative state of living death so they can be used as free labor. (But at least Haitians have the decency to get their slaves stoned first.) Hot Topic idol Bela Lugosi plays the symbolically named Murder (it’s subtle; give it a minute), a cross between a witch doctor and a creepy wizard, who works his magic through whittling voodoo dolls and clasping his hands together.
Beaumont enlists Murder’s help in winning Madeline’s heart, and this unibrowed Cyrano’s answer is simply poetic: slip her a mickey, bury her alive, then dig her up, and drug her some more, until she’s a an unthinking, unfeeling, undead Caucasian like the vacant-looking dudes Murder has working his sugar plantation at night. White Zombie offers the occasional creepy atmospherics and some impressive sets considering the limited budget, but the script and acting are often bad to the point of unintentional hilarity.
Some critics also credit the film for not forcing its black actors to play stereotypes, but the modern viewer is left deciding which is more offensive: the xenophobic reduction of Haiti to an island of freaky voodoo shit, or the inherent racism of insisting that a white man has somehow become the master of the native magic. Fans of classic horror films should pick up one of the hundreds of cheap versions floating around (the film’s in the public domain), but zombie nerds of the fake blood and brain-eating variety have plenty of better options.
Read more about the undead in film at sacurrent.com, where I review Glenn Kay’s Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide.