Wednesday, May 27, 2009

White Zombie

It might be hard to imagine, but zombies weren't always the trendy shuffling brain eaters they are today. You know, I've grown quite tired of zombies lately, having pretty much abandoned the subgenre for SciFi originals, sexploitation from the seventies, and 80's camp I procure on VHS, the real intellectual stuff. Zombies have been the new pirates for awhile now. But one zombie movie I never tire of, partially because it doesn't feature drooling, rotting gut muncher zombies and stars Bela Lugosi, is White Zombie. It's classics like White Zombie that make me remember why I love horror movies in the first damn place. White Zombie is smart and allegorical and, although it predates much feminist literary criticism, it can be read and argued in feminist terms, mainly the concept of the madwoman in the attic.

Beginning with Jane Eyre, the madwoman is a figure throughout the literary canon and film. In 1932, Haitian resistance to American occupation was increasing. White Zombie, arguably the first zombie movie, treated audiences to seminal elements of the myth of the zombie. Murder Legendre, played with eerie creepiness by Bela Lugosi, is a voodoo sorcerer that reanimates the dead to work in his sugar fields. He falls in love with a young white woman, who he transforms into the white zombie of the title. Poster art from the movie shouted, “A white girl caught in the zombie spell – slave to the evil will of the master zombie!” Haiti was long vilified as a land of voodoo and evil, which sustained Americans indifference towards the island. In this film, the terrorized peasant transformed into the soulless zombie is transferred over to the young virgin, “lustfully coveted by the evil ‘Voodoo’ sorcerer, the quintessentially innocent victim who must be rescued from her zombification before she is basely violated by racially impure hands” (Paravisini-Gebert 43).

Madeline is the young woman who arrives on the island of Haiti, in love with a man she met while aboard the ship to the island. Since she is so blissfully in love with this man, she is dumb to the entreaties of a rich planter on the island that covets her, a man controlled by Legendre. The planter solicits Legendre’s help in procuring a zombie poison to administer to Madeline so he can possess her. He gives her the poison literally as she is walking down the aisle to her groom and she falls into a coma at the altar. She is buried in her wedding dress on what would have been her wedding night. The wedding dress/night motif is indicative of her status as zombified/commodified woman. Paravisini-Gebert claims, “the wedding night motif, with it’s promise of carnal fulfillment, emphasizes the erotic quality of her death-like vulnerability, as does with the flimsy shroud (the wedding dress) in which she is buried and in which she will spend the rest of the movie” (43). Erotic gazing continues when Legendre sees Madeline as zombie; he is enchanted by her lack of will and decides he must possess her as well. Another ad for the movie told audiences they would be treated to, “A beautiful girl torn away from her lover on her bridal night, rendered lifeless…soulless…then brought back to life again by a fiend and made to perform his every desire!” (Rhodes 316).

Toward the latter part of the movie, there is a telling scene of Madeline squirreled away in the turret of a castle. The planter has completely turned her into the zombified madwoman in the attic. She stands on her balcony, glassily staring out to the rough sea below, perhaps trying to remember what her life was like before her capture. The final climatic scene of the film finds all the aforementioned characters on a high cliff, the sea raging below them. The resolution confirms hierarchies as Legendre is killed by the white planter in a burst of coming to his senses and Madeline is returned to her lover undefiled, or so we are led to believe.

This tale ends happily, given that it was made by Hollywood in a golden age of cinema. Although Madeline is released from her zombie state, she remains commodified because she returns to the arms of her lover. She does not descend from the attic, as it were; she rather retreats to her normal role of sweet, complacent bride. She still dons her wedding dress, indicating her gender and her race will not be challenged any further. However, the film, and others like it, is radical in many ways and zombie woman can be viewed favorably in some feminist terms.

Ellen Draper argues for the support of zombie woman films. She says, “the film recognize that the world beyond their fiction is riddled with sexism, an in no way preclude a further feminist critique of Hollywood film practice. The second thing to be said in support of these films’ exploration of patriarchal fiction is that the patriarchy itself is a fiction…erected and maintained by feminist theory to unite disparate experiences into a cohesive political force” (55). Draper’s statement indicates how these films predate much feminist film theory. Like Rhys' novel Wide Sargasso Sea, “the zombie woman films claim to have inherited directly from the Romantic poets artistic self-consciousness: both the possibility of radical mastery and the isolation of authorial creation are addressed by these horror films from the Thirties” (Draper 59).

White Zombie then function as text at odds with a classic Hollywood style, rather than merely commodifying woman, but depicting them with an almost passion for madness. And let us not forget, it's where Rob Zombie got the band name.

Other good, if not great, movies features old school zombies include but are not limited to I Walked With a Zombie (another great madwoman in the attic example), and a bit more recent, Serpent and the Rainbow.

Lemme know if you wanna see my list of sources.


  1. Great essay, Jenn--I would argue for the "great" designation of I Walked with a Zombie, though. Easily my favorite pre-brainmunching zombie flick, and even more on the Jane Eyre train than WZ--in fact, I think it even qualifies as a slightly skewed adaptation of the novel.

    Okay, more than "slightly." :)

  2. Reading your post, it struck me that an important difference between Romero-style zombies and their precursors as in White Zombie is that the modern flesh and brain eaters are autonomous apart from their eating compulsions, while the old-school zombie is usually under someone else's control. Zombies as symbols of ultimate enslavement in a universe of domination have been transformed into avatars of chaos. Feminist critics might identify White Zombie as a product from a transitional period during which women were still expected to voluntarily accept the submissive role, but it had become bad form for men to insist upon that role as forcefully as Legendre and his client do. You can argue that Madeline remains commodified throughout, but the film sides with her right to "sell" herself rather than the primitive accumulation practiced by the villains.

    Also, the old-school zombie makeup in this film still freaks me out more than many of the extreme effects of modern films because the male zombies look recognizably human yet utterly dehumanized. That and the antiquated mannerisms throughout give the Halperins' show a creepiness that hasn't gone out of date.

  3. Vicar - Another good companion novel for WZ and I Walked with a Zombie is Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea. I think I just mentioned it in passing above. Lots of voodoo and zombies and madwomen in the attic, so to speak.Hmmm....that gives me an idea for another post....

    Samuel - excellent point about zombies as symbols of ultimate enslavement in a universe of domination outside their control. Whether it be an evil plantation owner or the draw of the mall, it's still some kind of control these beings are under. Madeline absolutely still remains commodified, even in that flicker where she seems to recognize her boyfriend.

    It's a great movie, that even though grainy and stagey looking (it was filmed on the same set as Bela's Dracula), it still holds up.

    Stellar comments!

  4. Great to see you looking at this film and seeing how Samuel, got in there first with all my usual notes for this film, I'll just give you Kudos on choosing such a great (and often overlooked) film to write about.
    It's just intresting to see how the perception of Zombies has changed over the years, from thier representation of slavery in this film, to the more popular flesh eating hordes of the 70's and more recently as the infected victims, who are just basically zombies in another form, even though studios class "28 days later" as a Viral thriller, rather than a zombie flick.

  5. Thanks, Elwood. The zombie movie really has evolved, hasn't it? There's something still so cool about voodoo zombies. Obeah magic still exists in some places in the world and it's very terrifying to think someone could actually have the power to enslave another person in a zombie state. I think that's why the voodoo zombie movies still resonate. At least for me, anyway.

  6. There's a lot of gray area when it comes to Zombies nowadays. There's really no black or white and you're right, they've totally evolved through the years. The trend nowadays, thanks to a lot of video games, seems to be the virus outbreak zombie which in most cases isn't even a dead person reincarnated, but for the sake of simplicity I call them "zombies" even though they're not. To me, the "true" zombie has always been the voodoo zombie. It's rare to find a movie in this day and age that acknowledges that. There's a movie called "Boy Eats Girl" that came out a few years ago and it brought back the voodoo zombie which I really appreciated considering that it came from young Indie filmmakers. Anyway great stuff as always!

    P.S. I know you're into Nature Run Amok movies, well there's a new killer half snake/half alligator movie starring the rapper DMX and it's called Carnivorous. I have a feeling you would love it.

  7. Aaron, good point about zombies in video games. Not being a video game person myself, I never think about their influence in/from horror movies, but it is huge. I will have to check out Boy Eats Girl; I think I remember hearing about it when it came out. As of late, I appreciated Zombie Honeymoon as well, not because it had any voodoo, but because it was more about the relationship between a newlywed couple having to deal with zombie-ism, more that actually being about zombie-ism.

    And I will definitely be on the lookout for Carnivorous - it sounds right up my alley! Thanks for the recommendations!

  8. Everyone hit on great points, so I will just add that I am definitely a fan of the film as well, having only seen it for the first time this last year, great writeup Jenn!

  9. Good feminists points here, Jen... I've seen both White Zombie and I walked with a Zombie zillions of times as a kid and both have their strengths and weak men... White Zombie especially is full of weak men-- only the old wise 'do you have a match' priest and the ever-solid Clarence Muse as the coachman have any sense or decorum. The wreck that Legendre makes out of the scheming Beaumont shows the folly of attempting to objectify a real woman, the horror of realizing you've let lust and social pressure turn you into a monster with nothing to show for it -- meanwhile the hero is an idiot dumb enough to drag his bride out to a rival's godforsaken plantation to get married, indicating the kind of blind sense of invulnerable entitlement 'we' had about our colonies - no question wherever we go we're in charge! Anyway, sorry to ramble! Loving your awesomeness