Freshly-engaged Madeline (Madge Bellamy) & Neil (John Harron) are invited by Beaumont (Robert
Frazer) to have their wedding at his Haiti estate, which is mighty generous of
him (one would even say a bit too generous. Even when getting to his place
though, Medeline and Neil have to realize something's not quite alright: When their coach-driver
(Clarence Muse) all of a sudden speeds up the coach's horses to their limits, later
claiming he had to escape zombies, and when a weird looking man steals Madeline's scarf
(an important element in some voodoo practices is it to have an item that once
belonged to the proposed victim), both occurences not exactly reassuring.
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And, finally reaching Beaumont's estate, even the missionary who is going
to marry them, Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), articulates his doubts about their
friend's noble motives.
And really, Beaumont is madly in love with Madeline, & he would do
anything to get her.
Yes, he even goes to Black Magician Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) - the
weird looking man who has stolen Madeline's scarf - to ask him to put some
hoodoo on that woman so she stays with him ...
& really, shortly after the wedding, Madeline, having just smelt a
flower Beaumont has given her, dies. She is soon buried in a crypt of the local
graveyard, & Neil is left heartbroken, heavy drinking, always seeing
visions of his lost love ...
Beaumont meanwhile opens the crypt again, & awakes Madeline from the
dead, btu unfortunately she has turned into an emotionless soulless creature,
very much like all the servants & slaves of Murder Legendre. When Neil
returns to the cemetary though & finds Madeline's crypt open & her
coffin gone, he asks doctor Gruner for help, & the man is more than willing
to join forces with Neil in finding Madeline & fight the Black Magician
behind it all.
& really, their trail leads them back to Beaumont's castle, where
Beaumont in the meantime complains to Legendre about the soulless Madeline
& asks hjim to return her soul to her agian - but he doesn't know that
Legendre has since set eyes on the girls himself, & to get her has decided
to zombify Beaumont as well. Slowly, Legendre's poison is taking the soul out
of Beaumont ...
Neil meanwhile has reached the castle as well, but is knocked out by
Legendre's hypnotic powers, who then orders Madeline to stab her husband ...
but as if a distant memory would prevent her from doing so, she hesitates just
long enough for Buner to get her knife.
Startled by this turn of events, Legendre loses his grip on Neil, who then
tires to go into one on one combat with him, but Legendre calls all his
zonmbies for his own defense, & soon they threaten to throw Neil over a
cliff. Only thanks to Bruner's intervention, who knocks Legendrre out, Neil is
saved again, & the mindless zombies fall of the cliff to their own deaths
instead. & when Legendre finally regains consciousness, he is attacked by a
not yet totally zombified Beaumont, who throws him over a cliff, then himself
as well - he who started it all, ends it all, too.
Even upon its release, White Zombie was heavily critisized for its then
antiquated acting & directing style, all reminiscent of the silent era. To
a point, this is of course true, director Halperin uses many static shots in
wide range, long passages without dialogue & wildly gesturing actors. These
points of critique though are besides the point, as White Zombie is more
of atmospheric tale than a dialogue piece in the first place, with all the
scenery (while looking nothing like Haiti & actually entirely filmed on the
Universal lot) & the long silent scenes contributing greatly to the dark
& sinister mood, & Bela Lugosi's rather overacted performance (& he
was never a man of subtleties) was maybe the best of his career. As a result, White
Zombie, from today's point of view, stands the test of time much better
than other contemporary horror pics that at the time seemed more up-to-date.