In 1931, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi became a bona-fide movie star with his performance as Dracula in Tod Browning's film of the same name. But in 1932, he starred in what many consider the first actual zombie movie, White Zombie.
Directed by Victor and Edward Halperin, White Zombie is set in Haiti where Madelaine (Madge Bellamy) meets with her fiance Neil (John Harron) for a romantic island wedding. They arrive at the sugar plantation of Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) who falls in love (well, lust) with Madeline. Beaumont soon arrives at the sugar mill run by Murder Legendre*(Lugosi). Legendre's mill is run entirely by zombies under his control, and he convinces Beaumont the only way to win Madeline is to turn her into a zombie. Legendre gives him a potion which Beaumont slips to Madeline on her wedding day. Soon thereafter, Madeline takes ill, 'dies' and is buried, much to her new husband's consternation. Charles and Murder soon sneak into Madeline's tomb and revive her as a zombie, but Charles begins to regret his actions and begs Murder to restore her to life. Murder refuses and it soon becomes apparent that Charles is also under Murder's supernatural control. Meanwhile, Neil, haunted by ghostly visions of Madeline, seeks the help of a local missionary, Bruner (Joseph Cawthorne). Bruner and Neil arrive at Murder's cliffside castle, where Murder sends Madeline to kill Neil. Bruner intercedes and after a struggle, Beaumont and Legendre are thrown off an escarpment to their deaths, releasing Madeline from Murder's spell.
The movie was not well-received when it was released. Critics savaged the performance of Ms Bellamy, a former Broadway and silent film star, even though she had very little actual dialog, spending most of the picture moping about silently in a trance. The Halperin brothers were sued by playwright Kenneth Webb, who claimed they had stolen the plot from his theatrical flop "Zombie" (the court ruled that Webb's dialog and plot were not infringed upon). Bellamy went on to make a handful of films, but never really recovered from vicious attacks on her performance, despite being an accomplished stage actress. Lugosi, of course, went on to become one of Hollywood's most recognizable faces, though by the late '50's was reduced to appearing in Ed Wood, Jr's "Z"-grade movies.
Preceding Val Lewton's atmospheric I Walked with a Zombie, by 11 years, White Zombie manages to combine the traditional voodou zombi mythology with the mind-control of hypnotism popularized in earlier works such as The Cabinet of Caligari. Lugosi sports a truly demonic goatee and chews the scenery like every other horror star of the era. A lame, unofficial sequel called Revolt of the Zombies was released in 1936, though that movie lacks the atmosphere of the original and suffers from a dialog heavy script by Webb.
Like all horror movies of the era, White Zombie is truly tame by today's standards. Still, it remains an important entry in the sub-genre and introduced the concept of the "Zombie" into the American psyche. It is also an essential part of any serious horror collector's library. Don't be confused by the 2009 movie of the same name, which has absolutely nothing to do with this film.
*Is that the most awesome character name ever, or what?