A Meditation on the Horror Film Hero – White Zombie

Searching for movies involving more traditional zombies led me to the film “White Zombie”. I wanted to learn how zombies were treated by artists before the ideas of George A. Romero took on a life of their own and changed the perception of zombies into what they are today. Stories about zombies pre-Romero are actually quite difficult to find, but I wanted to get as close to Victorian horror tropes as possible, and this film seemed like a good start.

However, as I watched, one thing really stood out: The male lead was once again an intolerable douche.

I was surprised to discover that the douchey leading man from the mummy was not, as it were, a “one off”. It is this subject which I would like to discuss. What is it about these guys that any audience would find attractive?

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White Zombie (1932)

First of all I thought the title “White Zombie” was chosen because the woman who is zombified wears a flowing white dress. But after careful consideration, I think the title is just trying to clarify that the film is not about black, ethnic or Haitian zombies. It’s really that type of movie… kind of belligerent in its lack of awareness.

Historically speaking, zombies need a person to create them. This person is called a bokor, and was replaced in modern zombie stories by “genetic mutations” “disease” “biological weapon” and “meteor passing overhead”. The bokor in this film is played by Bela Lugosi’s eyebrows, and they have raised not only to obscene places on his face, but also have managed to raise an entire work force of zombies — in this case, actual Historical zombies. That’s to say, the people he has zombified are actually still alive, but are drugged up so much that neither they, nor their vital systems, are aware of this fact. Bela Lugosi and his eyebrows are running a sugar cane plant completely manned by zombies, thereby effectively cutting costs and maximizing profits at the same time.

Beware the eyebrows of Bela Lugosi!
Beware the eyebrows of Bela Lugosi!

The story opens on a young couple headed to their wedding in a carriage. The movie then expects this one fact to hold your sympathies for the rest of the film, as the two leads, with heroic endeavor, try valiantly to jettison any good-will you may have towards them. Both of them are idiots. These people make the ladies at summer camp getting chased by axe murderers look like geniuses.

These idiots are played by Madge Bellamy and John Harron. So, John Harron stares vacantly, aghast and incredulous about what  everything he encounters might be for the first part of the film, while his Minnie-mouse-voiced fiancee clings to him bewildered. When Madge is effectively cut out of the plot a few minutes in, when she becomes a zombie, we are left, begrudgingly, with John Harron as he… meanders aimlessly through the plot? I don’t know, he’s one of the crappiest heroes I’ve ever come across in fiction. He does not need to be in this movie for it to resolve itself.

White Zombie: Our heroes. Bewildered and incredulous. Just like we like 'em.
Our heroes. Bewildered and incredulous. Just like we like ’em.

John Harron is going to marry Madge. To tie the knot in the most romantic way possible, he takes her to the house of a creeper named Beaumont, whom they met yesterday, and who, inexplicably, in no way came across, to them, as being keenly interested in date-raping Madge. However, Beaumont is keenly interested in date raping Madge, as he has just gone to Bela Lugosi and his eyebrows to ask for a zombie potion to drug Madge with, whom he met yesterday, and turn her into his zombie bride forever. Ah, young love.

Now, I know some guys are trusting and look for the best in everyone, but for John Harron to be this clueless… This is strike one against him being an effective hero. “Yeah, I’ll just bring my lovely, bewildered bride into a rapist’s house for no reason today. Herpty derpty der.”

This creepy rapist, I am sad to say, is the most realistically drawn character in this weird-ass drama, and even goes through a character arc where he regrets his decisions (poor rapist!) and tries to save Madge. However, this plot is both too thin and too drawn-out for anyone to care about by the time it happens.

So, at the wedding feast, Madge is drugged, reads fortunes in a cup, which may be a standard fare for a foreign wedding, but it seems a little strange to this viewer, and then dies very obviously in the arms of her new husband.

White Zombie. "I must now die in the most melodramatic way possible! Farewell!"
“I must now die in the most melodramatic way possible! Farewell!”

He then proceeds to get wasted-ass-drunk at a local bar, over-acting drunk in a way that even drunks would find incredible, which is strike two for the likability of this hero. Any motivation that lead him to this behavior is irrational. Here is a list of things that a hero could do under these circumstances, rather than drinking himself into a stupor.

  1. He could call the police due to the suspicious nature of a woman dying while giving her wedding speech at a stranger’s house.
  2. Assuming he was still dumb enough not to suspect foul play, he could arrange the funeral, or the transportation of his deceased wife back to her family across the ocean. Instead, he leaves these arrangements up to the rapist, the bokor and the zombies, who bury her in the rapist’s family plot. Trusting fellow indeed. Nothing suspicious here. No way.
  3. Assuming her dying wish was to be buried in Haiti, where she spent the loveliest days of her life — getting married at a rapists house — and burying her in the local plot was completely a normal thing to do, then the hero could spend his time notifying friends and family of the tragedy. Obviously this is a very dark place for a movie to go, but instead, he abandons any semblance of dignity and goes and gets cartoonishly drunk. So there’s your hero.

John Harron next wanders drunkenly through the cemetery and discovers his wife’s body is missing (don’t even ask how this makes sense. Is there any version of reality where you are so drunk you can’t stand, but you can find your way to a grave you haven’t seen in a place you’ve never been where you exhume the body of your dead wife by ripping open the coffin to make sure she’s still there?) This causes him to consult a local doctor about how a corpse could go missing. The doctor gives him two equally plausible scenarios. a.) The wife was stolen by grave robbers. Sadly there are no leads on this one… rapist… cough… cough, and so the most likely and obvious solution is that b.) she is now a freaking zombie.

“I’ve seen things with my eyes that would make me think I was crazy!” says the doctor. So, obviously, zombies.

Which, technically is true, but so was the first, grave-robber, scenario, and if the film doesn’t care, then why should we?

After a nine hour long continuous take where the actors actually make mistakes in dialogue and blocking on screen (what a treat!) which describes in painstaking detail the real process behind creating a zombie, by drugging people so they appear dead, our “hero” decides not to contact the authorities, with reasons that effectively boil down to “They won’t care anyway. They’re Haitian.” But he suddenly suspects that Beaumont the rapist might not actually be an upstanding and trustworthy person after all… just… seriously? Wow.

Now for a minor gripe. Madge-as-a-zombie remains beautiful, but eeeeeeeeeeeeeveryone else who was turned into a zombie looks like a creepy dead person. So, unless Beaumont is also a make-up artist, and dolls her up before forcing her zombie bones to play the piano dryly for hours, then I have an issue with this. This is where Beaumont realizes loving a brainless zombie isn’t as fun as getting-it-on with a fully-conscious-regular-human-person (curse you date rape drugs!) and tries to convince Bela Lugosi’s eyebrows to de-zombify her. Instead, Lugosi zombifies Beaumont. What a twist! And with a set-up only a mile long!

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“Zombie Bride, may I introduce Zombie Rapist. I’m sure you’ll get along swimmingly!”

Meanwhile our hero travels to consult with a fellow wearing black-face, pretending to be a Haitian, exhibiting mannerisms that would make a drunk person suspicious. Now, I say consult, but just as the doctor, from earlier, had solved the zombie riddle for John Harron, his guide actually does all the talking during this scene while our hero goes and has a lie-down, cause he’s feeling sick. Really heroic John. Way to be proactive.

So when he’s not delivering his wife into the hands of a rapist, he’s either drunk or has a fever and lets everyone else do the things the plot requires.

Next, John hears a scream and lollops half-drunk, half-feverish through castle Lugosi hoping to accomplish something that only the screenwriter seems to be aware of. Just as he’s about to accomplish this “something”, he passes out in front of Bela Lugosi and his villainous eyebrows. Then, Madge-as-a-zombie is summoned by the eyebrows to jump off a cliff, but John intercedes just in time to fire a gun, aimlessly and without any credibility, at a horde of approaching zombies who mean the push him over the edge!

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“Beware our Meandering!”

And I’m making this sound about ten times more exciting than it actually is, so don’t get your hopes up. There’s a laborious moment wedged in there where he tries to squeeze Madge and sits her down, in the midst of approaching zombies, to have a little chat with her.

And in the final douche-bag move, hammering the nail into the coffin of likability, and striking our hero out, John, knowing full well that these zombies are really just people under the effects of a drug, tricks all of the zombies into walking off the cliff by crawling under their legs to safety, effectively killing them all. Wow, John. Wow.

Madge, roused by the stupid look on her husband’s face — either that or because Bela Lugosi briefly fell over earlier, it’s unclear — comes back to life.

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This. This is the look that rouses Madge.

But when Bela Lugosi revives for a moment, standing unthreateningly and throwing smoke bombs, it’s left to Beaumont-the-zombie-rapist to tackle the villain from behind, causing them both to fall to their doom over the edge of the cliff, and save the heroes from those horrifying eyebrows!

So, not only does the hero kill about a dozen innocent people, he also does not, in any way, protect his wife from either the rapist or the bokor. Roll credits.

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“See you at the bottom of a cliff, every single actor who isn’t the hero or heroine!”

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