Murder Comes Calling

Bela’s out of focus! Bela’s out of focus!

I saw WHITE ZOMBIE as a kid and liked it, though maybe I was also a bit underwhelmed. But you couldn’t say that about a film with Bela Lugosi and zombies in it. I was certainly surprised to find that my bible, Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, was wrong about the film’s climax, falsely alleging that villain Murder Legendre (Lugosi) is torn apart by his own rebellious zombies. That would indeed have been a fine end, instead of which we get a sequence in which almost the entire population of the film falls off a cliff. There’s something intensely bathetic about the way the last one to go is the character we’re least bothered about. Additional dying by Robert W. Fraser.

But reviewing it forty years later (oh shit, I have become old) I was amazed by how much I remembered, specific images that had lurked somewhere in the recesses of my brain, not consciously recalled, but ready to resonate upon reacquaintance. I recalled the zombie mill, though my memory placed the camera higher. It’s still a spectacular scene, impressive for such a low-budget production. But the vulture on the window pane, and the burial of Madge Bellamy were ah-hah! moments, since I didn’t remember that I remembered them.

Really a handsome film, and I’m sure the new restoration looks a thousand times better. The set design is atmospheric, the photography moody, and the music score enervating but innovative. The real frissons come from the sound effects, which deliver some striking moans and screams.

The acting, mind you, is pretty dreadful, and Lugosi is by no means the worst offender. I’m surprised my young self wasn’t traumatized by the googly-eyed Bellamy.

6 Responses to “Murder Comes Calling”

  1. A major favorite of Jack Smith’s. You can see its influence on “Flaming Creatures”

  2. Striking visuals and crazy-ass acting — yes, it makes sense!

  3. Andre Ferreira Says:

    I watched this when I was 12 (10 years ago) and was struck by how dread inducing all the images were. I think this and Freaks are the two 30’s classics that are genuinely disquieting. I’ll never forget the laissez faire attitude towards a zombie slave being crushed in the mill

  4. Mark Fuller Says:

    I remember seeing this on tv…BBC…..late night screening when I was maybe 16 or so, in an atmosperically bad print and have to admit it scared the bejaysus out of me. (I too was infernally influenced by Denis Gifford’s book…..I must have been the only 11 year old Val Lewton fan, and it was my gateway to silent films when the chance came ) Glad to hear it has been restored….what with this and the forrhcoming The Old Dark House release, good days to be a fan of classic horror.

  5. I was younger when I saw it, so very possibly the same screening. I think Isle of the Dead was the one that really scared me, though. The bured alive stuff in White Zombie never gets as far as waking up in a coffin, which is what freaked me out. I recall being rather disturbed by the swaddling of Karloff in The Mummy, too, the only time a Universal film upset me.

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