I took out the apostrophe from the Halperin Brothers White Zombie in the title because I think they are just as important as The United Nations Building and the Mark Wahlberg movie Patriots Day (2016) which also copped flak from journalists who went in a tizz for dropping the apostrophe…
Chicago-born director Victor Halperin (1895-1983) and his producer brother Edward (1898-1981) made a few almost classic horror type movies in the early to mid-1930s. Those films were the atmospheric White Zombie (1932), its ghostly follow-up Supernatural (1934) starring comedienne Carole Lombard just before her career kicked into high gear… and the unjustly forgotten Revolt of the Zombies (1936). But there were other films in the Halperin canon and other zombie movies as they were before George A. Romero created the modern-day flesh eating and contagious through a bite zombie. The Halperin zombie was the result of mesmerism and the effect of drugs… But let’s start elsewhere:
“You want to become a party girl?”
“Oh. Miss Lindsay, I’d like nothing better.”
Such is the conversation in Party Girl (1930), one of the Halperins’ first sound pictures. The director goes under the name of Rex Hale which Victor Halperin used often. Party Girl tells of escort agencies and despite being Pre-Code, it doesn’t hint that the girls are nothing more than hostesses.
It stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909-2000 heart attack) and Marie Prevost (1896-1937 liver failure) who makes the transition to sound reasonably well. Prevost was a victim of alcoholism and binge eating. She put on weight and as a result couldn’t get work on the screen despite showing she could handle sound. It is said that Prevost’s pet dog ate a part of her body as it was two days after her death that her body was found.
Another surprising fact about Party Girl is its status as the film which was longest banned in Britain as it remained unclassified until 2003 when it was passed by the censor with a PG rating.
Party Girl is a genuine relic and a plea by the producers to put an end to the oldest profession in the world in a forward at the end of the opening credits. Good luck to them!
White Zombie (1932) is one of actor Bela Lugosi’s better films and came shortly after his success with Dracula (1931). Lugosi complained bitterly over the years that he was only paid about $500 for White Zombie and that he should have taken a percentage of the box office rather than a flat salary. It was though, according to his son, one of Lugosi’s favourite films.
The history of what is one of the first sound zombie movies begins with former film director and then stage writer Kenneth S. Webb’s (1892-1966) play Zombie opening in New York in early 1932. The Halperins thought they’d capitalise on public interest in zombies and so ripped off elements of the play. Webb sued unsuccessfully for what I guess was plagiarism and White Zombie was shot in eleven days around March 1932.
As for Webb’s play Zombie: A Drama of Startling Revelations, it appears never to have been published and all I can gather is it is set in Haiti, the home of the original zombie. Reviewers in the day said of the play that there was “more reasons for laughs than spinal chills”.
As for landmark zombie flick White Zombie, one of the screenwriters Garnett Weston (1890-1980) had written one of the earliest fictional zombie stories entitled Salt is Not for Slaves, which added to the zombie myth of salt being a ‘cure’ for zombiedom.
But the seeds that sowed the original zombie myth in Western culture was from William Seabrook’s The Magic Island which was published around 1929 and was a travelogue which told of the author’s adventures in Haiti, where he claims to have seen real zombies or people who had been changed into mindless slaves through sorcery.
This zombie in the Haitian sense and thus a part of the New World of the Americas and the islands to its east can be seen as a new type of monster. Perhaps misunderstood, the public were unsure of what a zombie was capable of.
The zombies of Haiti differ of course to the bite and infect and destroy the brain to kill zombies which began with George A. Romero’s (1940-2017 lung cancer) Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Another more recent book in the Haitian vein of zombies is The Serpent and the Rainbow written by anthropologist Wade Davis and made into a film loosely based on it by Wes Craven (1939-2015 brain tumour) in 1988. The original book is promoted as a non-fiction as it explores the superstition and religion of voodoo as well as an explanation of the creation of zombies though a mixture of drugs used almost as some sort of anaesthetic.
White Zombie in ripping off Webb’s play establishes the zombie lore of incessantly beating drums, blank eyed stares and slave labour in this case a mill.
Bela made White Zombie a year after Dracula and it was a year where he was typecast in other horror roles such as Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and Island of Lost Souls (1933). Other stars of White Zombie failed to make iconic status such as silent film star Madge Bellamy (1899-1990 heart failure), Robert W. Frazer (1891-1944 leukemia) and John Harron (1903-39 spinal meningitis).
Part of the beauty of White Zombie is that it dispenses with the excess verbal diarrhoea of early talkies and goes for mood and atmosphere.
“Only a pinpoint… in a glass of wine,” says Bela about the drug used to create a zombie.
It’s definitely Pre-Code, with Madge parading around in knickers and a bra and a wedding veil as native drums beat in the distance.
“They are driving away evil spirits,” says the maid.
Madge is pretty with a cherubic face, but little does she know she has been chosen as a part of a voodoo ritual to turn her into a blank eyed zombie for somebody else’s attentions. Looking into her wine goblet on her wedding night she sees Bela’s staring eyes at the bottom and says: “I see death”. Yes, just a pinpoint in the wine and it seems the person is ‘dead’.
For what was a limited budget of a reported $50,000, Halperin works wonders as a director with his use of superimposed effects and shadow being particularly effective. These include the scenes of shadow and hallucination to do with the alcoholism of one of the characters in a well-lit scene as he arrives at Madge’s crypt only to find it has been robbed. There is atmosphere too as frogs croak in the background as Madge’s body is at first stolen.
“Zombies!?,” asks a missionary.
“Yes, they are my servants,” says Lugosi, who clasps his hands just as low-budget director Ed Wood (1924-78 heart attack) would ask him to do again in Bride of the Monster (1955) as a part of his mesmerism.
It is said that the superstitions of Haiti were brought there by the natives of Africa when they were taken there as slaves and that those superstitions can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians.
“Not dead… Are you mad?… Her lips were cold… Well, surely you don’t think she’s alive in the hands of natives?… Oh, no better dead than that!,” says Madge’s fiancé, about to hit the bottle.
If you go back to the philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650 pneumonia) for the first idea of zombies. He said that non-human animals are automata based on reaction to the physical environment and are not totally human as such. Whereas in humans there is essentially an immaterial mind interacting with the processes of the brain and the rest of the body. If this immaterial mind did not do so, if it did not have consciousness – perhaps it is a zombie?! There would be no human features such as language… it would perhaps eat and sleep but this mind would not be ‘alive’ in the human sense beyond physicality. Well, that’s one philosophical theory! I guess if you can read it and faintly get the idea, then you are not a zombie!!
Back to White Zombie and poor Madge is walking around in a trance in her wedding dress while standing on a balcony of the castle where she now resides. It’s another great image. I guess the fact that Madge was a silent movie actress makes her performance all the more effective.
The restored prints of the movie are a delight as Bela carves voodoo dolls from wax candles. Sets and props from recent productions at Universal Studios were used for White Zombie – films such as The Cat and the Canary (1927) and Frankenstein (1931) – and they add to the spell and perfect lushness of White Zombie. The Halperins would not make another film of such dark beauty.
To look again at the formation of the zombie myth and you must go back to the slavery in Haiti under French colonialism where the misery of the slaves led to many suicides. It is said that those who killed themselves would wander the plantations for eternity rather than go to the afterlife. Upon the end of the Haitian revolution in 1804, it became a part of folklore and then a part of the voodoo religion. It is then that it is said that shamans or voodoo high priests reanimated the dead to perform menial tasks. Thus, it is based on a nation haunted by slavery. Mesmerism and drugs – also appear to be the basis of the zombie!
White Zombie remains influential and horror director and musician Rob Zombie’s (1965-) first band was named after the film.
To skip a film, the Halperins would do a follow-up to White Zombie entitled Revolt of the Zombies (1936) which is often dismissed as simply boring or poor filmmaking. It is, however some sort of minor classic with a subtext, which was ignored perhaps because it was a bit controversial or possibly missed altogether for its brashness. That and the audience being generally blind! Or bored!!
For Revolt of the Zombies, the brothers would run into legal troubles again over the use of the word ‘zombie’ in the title. One of the original investors in White Zombie claimed their contract gave them exclusive use of the word zombie in movie titles. The Halperins, who were already distributing the film, lost the case and couldn’t promote the film as a sequel to White Zombie according to reports. They also had to fork out over $10,000, something which was a creative death knell for the brothers and their future productions as they seemed to lose interest in creating quality product shortly after. Perhaps legally they could use the plural ‘zombies’ in the title after all as several films with ‘zombies’ in the titles appeared in the 1940s. Anyway, the Halperins’ legal reputation from their original rip-off legal case must have followed them.
There’s talk of mental telepathy among the Cambodian high priest mystics in Revolt of the Zombies – a film which dispenses with any Haitian connection to zombiedom. Whereas White Zombie was more about atmosphere, Revolt is more talky and cut-rate from the beginning… then suddenly we are in trench warfare in World War One with Cambodian soldier zombies putting the wind up the German enemy soldiers as they apparently can’t be killed. We see the bullet holes appear in them and yet they soldier on!
Despite Bela Lugosi being originally cast in the film, probably as General Mazovia, instead we have to put up with a look-a-like of Bela in White Zombie – actor Roy D’Arcy (1894-1969). Yet despite not actually appearing, it is Bela’s eyes used from White Zombie which are superimposed again during scenes of mesmerism in Revolt of the Zombies.
With the cheapness of canvas backdrops and back projection, Revolt is a cut-rate affair and the cast too has no great names. One of the stars is Dean Jagger (1903-91) who went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in war film Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and would make his last appearance in exploitation feature Alligator (1980).
So, is Revolt of the Zombies a cheapjack bore, lacking suspense, boring us with poor background music and lacking all the grandeur of the Halperin’s White Zombie? It obviously lacked a budget. To look on the bright side, however, Revolt could be seen as some sort of low-budget epic, using the lost city of Angkor as a backdrop, along with Phnom Penh, as a man with a ‘weakness’ despite his love for a woman is further derailed by his discovery of “the secret of the zombies” which relates to a smoking ritual and possibly pornographic stone tablets. The importance of these tablets in the narrative are shown in the opening credits as the title card is carved in stone along with director Halperin.
But to go back to the beginning of Revolt and the generals during the Great War want to pull the plug on the experimental zombie Cambodian army unit as it may be a possible threat and lead to the “destruction of the white race”. The Buddhist priest who has created the zombies is almost one himself as he rarely speaks as the generals decide to put him into solitary confinement indefinitely so he can “never again use his occult talents”. The priest is then murdered which may forever end the West from knowing “the secret of the zombies”. The murderer has stolen a cloth rubbing of a stone with bare breasted priestesses and a bare arsed character, not to mention another with a large erection. Thus, the pornographic element. Viewers were obviously snoozing in the day!
One character says: “There’s always a danger of overdoing it and that’s worse than not doing it at all” as if coded for sex and self-titillation.
Poor Jagger’s character is defined as weak. He plays with a cigar like he’s fondling his penis as he fails to convince anyone of the laws of telepathy. He’s a failure who plays a masturbatory game with telepathy… thus his weakness and he almost stutters. He is yet to know “the secret of the zombies” which the expedition to Angkor is there to find and destroy forever.
Jagger is insulted for his weak representation at a meeting and is almost treated as a slave or zombie himself.
“Very nice of him I’m sure, but I have a habit of handling my own affairs,” says a character who dismisses him as if Jagger has been interfering in a bad way. Jagger is ”very nice” – is that his weakness?!
With the city of Angkor apparently built by zombie robots in the East with a great civilisation that flourished while the West was still in the Dark Ages, it is probably a worry to the West what the East could produce with an army of zombie soldiers in the present day. Thus, it’s a broad canvas for a cheap movie. Could this once peaceful part of the world and their robot zombies have something to do with the gaining of good karma or universal peace in terms of Buddhism? Does the Buddhist monk with his almost zombie-like vow of silence mean that “the secret of the zombies” is in some ways a part of their religion? And what would happen if say a so-called weakling like Jagger was in charge of a robot zombie army?
But back to Jagger’s character and his engagement is announced to a woman played by actress Dorothy Stone (1905-74) who is the general’s daughter. Jagger has a kind of sexlessness, he isn’t sexy and his weakness could be onanism and a love of other men. This is 1936! Anyway, he has a rival for the love of his fiancée in a friend.
“There goes that inferiority complex again,” says his friend when Jagger says that his friend is more Dorothy’s type. It’s no surprise his fiancée prefers the other guy as she calls off the engagement to Jagger not long after.
“I will always love you,” he tells Stone after she breaks it off and again, Jagger fondles the ring like another part of his anatomy.
“I too love only one thing in the world but cannot give it up. Our difference is, I haven’t your courage,” says Jagger about his weakness to his once upon a time fiancée Stone.
The trek to the ruined city as mentioned had been to discover and destroy “the secret of the zombies” and Jagger does so if only by accident when he follows a native through the ruins and sees him with a tablet which turns out to be the same one with naked people used as a rubbing by the murdered Buddhist priest. There is a well-shot sequence in a swamp using back-projection as well as inside the temple despite the budgetary limitations.
As it turns out, if you can get past the naked people on the tablet, it’s part of some sort of smoke ceremony using a ground powder and ritual… “the secret of the zombies” – cigarettes and porn, or was that marijuana and porn? – and Jagger follows its instructions with one of the natives as he finally is about to take things really into his own hands.
“Can you think or speak… except as I command?,” Jagger asks his first zombie. And so, he slowly gathers an army through repeated ceremonies and tells them he will never release control of them lest they tear him “limb from limb”. It’s a man thing!
It’s too bad that Jagger got fired on the spot just as he was about to share his secret with his superiors about the secret and so kept it for himself.
“You are incapable of thought,” his boss tells Jagger as if he is some sort of lowly navvy not worthy of higher office or intellectual thought. It’s that weakness thing again. Jagger is treated as a zombie as a soldier takes orders from a general. It is just Jagger will become his own general.
Jagger has other ideas as “he who must succeed must disregard all sentiment” something which will make him “the most important man in the world”. Yes, well, perhaps megalomania is the result of a touch too much narcissism? Who knows? Yet, Jagger is described as “like a man who’s suddenly found himself” once he gains confidence from having so many men under his control. Bela Lugosi’s eyes are used again from White Zombie in this movie to convey moments of mesmerism.
When the Satanic character played by D’Arcy asks Jagger to share the secret with him, he agrees but gets one of his zombies to strangle him. He has started to kill and Jagger uses his telepathy… to dominate the minds of his former employers. Meanwhile he sleeps beside another native man who he tells to “go home right now” when he hears the voice of his ex-fiancee in his head in a further hint to the bisexual subtext.
But Jagger wants this woman too and promises if she comes back to him, he will leave his old friend/her lover alone and unharmed. He then goes further as if in rapture and tells her he will stop his megalomania and masturbatory telepathy as proof he really loves her – it’s that weakness again: “I’ll prove it. I’ll give it up.”
Having seen through the pornography only to see the real intellectual secret of the zombies, Jagger is fooled because the woman is still not really attracted to him, as she now knows his secret. He will never seduce her and probably never did! All of this is just not on in 1936!!
So, Jagger lets the zombies go free and they revolt against him and kill Jagger so he can never do it again. We have also watched a revolution in Jagger’s character from lover to spurned lover, from intellectual to madman and again the hope of being redeemed through eternal love. It could be a Buddhist fable of sorts. It is just that karma caught up with him in the end… and in the end it was madness equated, and perhaps caused, by his ‘weakness’ in the eyes of the civilized men of the West and East which left him dead and judged.
“Whom the Gods destroy they first make mad,” says the general over Jagger’s body, using a quote from the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882 peritonitis).
There is also another quote in the film from the Chinese philosopher Mencius: “When right ways disappear, one’s person must vanish with one’s principles”.
I guess the zombies are revolting with their pornography in the minds of clean minded intellectuals or Christians who don’t imbibe.
Are unrequited love and self-doubt the seeds of weakness and madness? Jagger should have chosen not the way of evil and corruption but his weakness was a part of him which he could not resist easily. Like the Joker, he was treated badly! I have used the term weakness broadly in this article and what Jagger’s weakness is… I’ll let you to decide! Should you watch Revolt of the Zombies.
An in terms of Cambodia, it is a cautionary tale of the perils and brainwashing of communism – the Khmer Rouge would come and decimate the country throughout the 1970s by killing millions. Jagger’s murder could also be seen as cutting off the head of French colonialism by the zombie or general population, something which had long ago happened in Haiti. Cambodia wouldn’t get its official independence until the early 1950s. Note too that about 20,000 Cambodians fought for the Allies during World War One, so Asians were not rare on the Western battlefields even back then and the opening scene isn’t necessarily far-fetched.
I also noticed that a key scene which was the headquarters in Phnom Penh in the movie was actually filmed at the Yamashiro restaurant in Hollywood where you can still get the best sushi in town and the best night time view overlooking Los Angeles.
Revolt of the Zombies is the Halperin’s forgotten classic, boring though it may be to some. Victor Halperin goes uncredited for the screenplay – no-one seems to want to take credit lest they get stigmatised – while Arthur Martinelli who was responsible for the cinematography in White Zombie is present again.
Learn about another in the Halperin Brothers trilogy of horror as well as other zombie movies of the era in PART TWO. I promise, it’s short!