By Daniel Barnes
*Plays Sunday, June 26 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley as part of the UCLA Festival of Preservation 2016.
From its first shot of a Haitian burial ceremony undulating under the opening credits, Victor Halperin’s 1932 indie horror film White Zombie establishes an eerie and unusual atmosphere. The corpse in question is being buried in the middle of the road in order to discourage body snatchers, delaying and unnerving the passengers of a passing coach, a white-suited schmendrick (John Harron) and his platinum blonde fiancee (Madge Bellamy). Bela Lugosi plays a creepy, black-hearted robber baron who uses an unfathomable charisma to hypnotize poor people (and his enemies) into zombies so that they’ll work around-the-clock shifts in his sugar mill and holy shit you guys, I think I just figured out Trump’s endgame. Lugosi’s legendarily mesmeric glare is used to great effect here, but literally every other actor is a stiff, and the tone and pace are incredibly uneven. For every entrancing use of shadows and era-appropriate special effects, such as the scene where the schmendrick sees his presumably dead wife in a pool of spilled booze, there is a scene that plays like a poorly blocked stage play. White Zombie is all wizard and no brains, heart or courage.