The early cinematic zombies were a lot different than the gut-wrenching, brain-sucking creatures found on recent screens. Instead of an inherent need to kill as soon as they left their graves, the early walking dead were usually woken for a specific purpose under the wilful gaze of a madman who seeks cheap labour, or a scientist wanting to help the war effort with invincible armies. Although the word “zombie” was introduced to American audiences with the book about Haitian voodoo, Magic Island by William B. Seabrook in 1929, cinema’s zombies had begun their evolution as far back as 1919.
Although not strictly a zombie film, the producers of Das Kabinet des Doktor Caligari (1919) use the word “somnambulist” to describe the sleepwalking state of Cesare, (Conrad Veidt), an emaciated, white faced creature under the control of the insane hypnotist Dr. Caligari, (Werner Krauss). Yet Cesare shows all the characteristics of a living corpse while going about his hideous deeds at the whim of Caligari who furthers his side-show career by making predictions and then having Cesare ensure that they come true.
When students Francis, (Fredrich Feher), and Alan, (Hans Heinz von Twardowski), visit the Holstenwall fairground with their friend Jane, (Lil Dagover), Caligari predicts that Alan will not live till morning. Sure enough during the night Alan mysteriously dies. Convinced that Caligari is behind the recent spate of deaths in the area, Francis discovers that Caligari is substituting Cesare with a dummy while the somnambulist carries out his bidding. When Jane is threatened by Cesare, Francis intervenes and Cesare dies from exhaustion. The police give chase to Caligari who flees to an asylumwhere he takes his place as governor, but confronted with Cesare’s corpse, the doctor becomes deeply disturbed and is led away in a strait-jacket. The final scene shows Francis in an asylum relating his story to an eighteenth century hypnotist named Caligari.
The film is best remembered as a classic of the German Expressionist period with its stark, twisted sets and inventive use of light and shadow, however, CALIGARI also boasts the first shuffling steps of the walking corpses that were to grace the big screen later on.
The first time “zombie” was used on film, it came from the often forgotten White Zombie starring non other than Bela Lugosi. As Murder Legendre, an evil Haitian hypnotist, Lugosi gives one of the best portrayals of his career, a role that allowed the actor’s dark wit to show through. Unfortunately, as Bela Lugosi often found much of the growing amount of dialogue in his other roles extremely difficult, few of his skills as an artist were rarely evident.
Despite the furore created by the advent of sound, The Halperin brothers believed that they should keep the dialogue to a minimum and recapture some of the visual flair of the great silent films. In addition, the low budget, (reportedly at $50,000) and the rushed two week shooting schedule on the Universal backlot, inadvertently created the right atmosphere and creepiness needed for the story. This made it seem a lot older than some of the other, more famous, horror films made around the same time.
Madelaine Short, (Madge Bellamy), and her fiancée Neil Parker, (John Harron), are invited to a Haitian manor by the wealthy Charles Beaumont, (Robert Frazer), to be married after offering Neil a position as an agent for his company. The couple oblige, but after witnessing a funeral taking place in the middle of the road, and a brief encounter with sinister sugar mill owner Murder Legendre, (Lugosi), Madelaine and Neil begin to have doubts. Secretly Charles Beaumont desires to have Madelaine for his very own and arranges with Legendre to put Madelaine under a spell. Legendre, a hypnotist who populates his mill with the walking corpses of his enemies as slave labour, creates a wax effigy of Madelaine and plunges it into a candle flame. At the same moment, the newly married Madelaine collapses and dies in her distraught husband’s arms. Dr. Bruner, (Joseph Cawthorn), the clergyman who had recently married the couple, now performs Madelaine’s burial service, not knowing that the evil Legendre will soon steal her corpse and turn her into a zombie for Charles Beaumont. Not unfamiliar with local voodoo lore, Bruner convinces Neil that his wife may be one of the living dead under Legendre’s control. Meanwhile Beaumont is disappointed at Madelaine’s emotionless state and regrets his actions, but when he confronts Legendre, the hypnotist reveals his own desires for Madelaine and his plan to turn Beaumont into a zombie with the drug that he has just drunk from his glass. Neil and Bruner arrive at Legendre’s clifftop castle, however, Neil collapses in a weary heap and Legendre wills Madalaine to kill him. Bruner prevents her from doing so and manages to knock Legendre unconcious for a time during which the army of zombies walk off the high castle wall to the sea below. Legendre revives and is about to drug the two interlopers when Beaumont in his semi-zombified state knocks Legendre off the castle wall and perishes in the attempt. Madelaine is restored to normal in Neil’s arms.
Not without its flaws, this is still a worthy addition to the classic horror movie stable. In some places the story is slowed to a crawl and a lot of the plot elements now seem dated, but all the while the technical prowess of cinematographer Arthur Martinelli shines through, while the interesting use of wipes, shadows and an atmosphere not unlike that of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, maintain attention. Also refreshing is the absence of a comic relief character which allows the dreamy, fairytale style to continue uninterrupted throughout.
Although Kenneth Webb, creator of the play Zombie that had a short run in New York in 1932, sued the Halperin’s, they successfully countered that the word itself is in the public domain and can be used by anyone.
The Halperin brothers were promptly sued by the financiers of White Zombie, Amusement Securities, when they embarked work on a follow up film titled Revolt of the Zombies in 1936. Amusement Securities, claimed that to have another zombie film on the market at the same time constituted unfair competition. The claim was not upheld and Victor and Edward Halperin were able to release their film, but it did not find the same success as its predecessor.
To demonstrate their invulnerability to bullets, a Cambodian high priest brings a company of zombies to the Franco-Austrian front during the First World War.
Armond Loque, (Dean Jagger), a student of dead languages and part of an allied post-war team travelling to Anger in Cambodia to destroy the zombie formula, resolves to claim the document that tells of the hiding place of the formula. He finds the document in a temple near the statue of a multi-limbed idol, but not only does he transform a native tribe and his servant Buna, (Teru Shimada), into zombies, he uses his new found power to force pretty Claire Duval, (Dorothy Stone), to marry him. When he realises that Claire will never love him, he frees his zombie slaves by leaping to his death.
Unfortunately, Jagger was no replacement for Lugosi and despite the use of Lugosi’s close up “eye” shots from the previous film, the whole is a dreary clone that has none of the fairytale atmosphere and generates little interest.
1940 saw PRC’s release of the little known Condemned Men, a low budget zombie romp directed by William “one shot” Beaudine with an all black cast including character actor Mantan Moreland. Appearing in numerous low budget films of the 40’s as a comic relief character, Moreland also repeats this role in King of the Zombies and Revenge of the Zombies.
Paramount, eager to follow up the success of The Cat and the Canary (1939) cast the film’s star Bob Hope in another comedy vehicle titled The Ghost Breakers (1940). Although filled with the similar trappings of his previous excursion, including an heiress, a gloomy castle and a hidden fortune, Hope as radio personality Larry Lawrence, his servant, (Willie Best), and heiress Mary Carter, (Paulette Goddard), encounter ghosts and a zombie played by Noble Johnson.
Although much darker than CAT… with some genuinely creepy scenes, Hope is the one that shines in what many consider to be his best performance. Willie Best matches the star’s cowardice line for line, but again it is Hope’s one-liners that are most memorable. In one example, a thunderstorm over New York City prompts Larry to comment “Basil Rathbone must be throwing a party.”