On Voodoo and Zombies in Classic Horror

Today is the day of the NYC Zombie Crawl, a fitting day to do this post about zombies as part of our month long series on classic horror films we launched here. Most modern zombie productions in the post Romero-era have concerned explicable zombies, caused by radiation or disease. I still remain partial to the original lore, in which dead bodies are resurrected by black magic, linking them closer to vampires and mummies. This was the reigning trope in the 1930s and 40s.


White Zombie (1932)

This is probably my favorite zombie movie. I find that I am rarely truly scared by modern zombie movies of the post-Night of the Living Dead variety. Whatever it is that scares people about them eludes me entirely. However I find VOODOO zombies terrifying. This one is set in Haiti, where it seems to be perpetually nighttime. A pair of young lovers comes there to marry. An unscrupulous plantation owner wants the girl for his own, so he contacts the evil zombie master Bela Lugosi (who uses zombie slave labor) to obtain his zombie-making secrets. He turns the bride into a zombie—she becomes the “wife” of the plantation owner. He quickly regrets this path…his zombie wife is a little unsatisfying. Lugosi starts to turn him into a zombie too. In the end the groom comes to rescue the girl, and the plantation owner in a last burst of humanity pushes Lugosi over a cliff to his death. Lots of cool Dracula derived elements inexplicably transplanted to Haiti…a ride in a similar carriage, and especially the mysterious, gorgeous Gothic castle. The atmosphere is nightmarish, chilling….


Black Moon (1934)

A rare entry from Columbia in the classic horror horse race, and a very interesting and effective thriller. Other than the hypnotic call of drums, the voodoo horror in this film seems to derive less from the supernatural than the fears of the characters of themselves, a fear of the “primitive”, and of rites that involve human sacrifice. That particular formula, the ambiguity of it, reminds me of the films of Val Lewton a few years later.In other words, there no “un-dead” zombies roaming about — just a mysterious tribal religion.  A woman (Dorothy Burgess) was raised on a Caribbean island plantation by her uncle after her parents were killed. She has since married a rich man (Jack Holt, Tim Holt’s father) and lives a luxurious life in New York. But the voodoo drums are calling back. Against everyone’s please, she returns, bringing her baby daughter and secretary (Fay Wray) with her.  But there are mysterious deaths, and the woman won’t refrain from hanging out with those damn “voodoo people”. So the husband comes down to rescue them. But it’s not so easy. It turns out the woman (thanks to a ceremony that happened in her childhood) is the new VOODOO QUEEN. It even reaches the point where she is going to sacrifice her own daughter. The husband sorts it all out in a fairly unthinkable (if satisfying) Pre-code way.


Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

This film was created as loose sequel to White Zombie by that film’s creator Victor Halperin, with his brother Edward as producer. What’s unusual is that is set in Cambodia — it’s the only pop culture reference to this southeast Asian country I have ever encountered occurring prior to the late 1960s. The film is set (and was made) at time when Cambodia was still a French colony, thus the leading characters are all French. Interesting to note that Haiti too had been a French colony. But the zombie lore in this film has nothing to do with Haitian or African voodoo. In fact, though the story gives us “high priests” and “temples” (thus linking it to the “mad magician” subgenre we posted about earlier), it’s unclear what religion the mystic zombie producing rites in this film are supposed to be affiliated with. In the story, it is known that the temples of Cambodia were built  with zombie slave labor in ancient times, and now the search is on to find the ancient parchment that contains the proper spells. Naturally, it is found or there wouldn’t be a movie. In addition, there is business with a love triangle. This is a far less effective film than the original White Zombie. 


The Devil’s Daughter (1939)

Like the previous two films, this one was a low-budget independent production. What makes this one unique was its  all black cast, and the fact that it was mainly marketed and distributed to black audiences. The plot: a young lady from Harlem (Ida James) inherits her father’s Jamaican plantation. When she arrives, there is no sign of her half sister who has been running the place, so there are many scenes with two rival scenes and the comic relief (Hamtree Harrington — he’s the reason I saw the film in the first place). Meanwhile, drums in the jungle are beating, beating. Finally the sister (Nina Mae McKinley) shows up. She, too is beautiful, but also mysterious, aloof and (as we rapidly surmise) vindictive and unprincipled. Comedian Jack Carter (in his first film role) plays a white business manager.


King of the Zombies (1941)

The evil German doctor part in this film was originally intended for Bela Lugosi; when he was unavailable, the part went to Henry Victor, the actor who played Hercules in Todd Browning’s Freaks. The plot: a plane crashes on a Caribbean island. Our heroes are taken to the doctor’s mansion, which proves to be a hive of zombies. On top of that, the doctor (rather unnecessarily)  proves to be a Nazi spy (that pretty much happens in ALL the films of the time). Mantan Moreland is the comic relief.


I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

A Val Lewton picture for RKOThis is the first zombie movie we have mentioned thus far which was made by a major studio, though it is still a B movie. Though it’s set on a sugar plantation in the West Indies among actual zombies, it still feels to me much more like a Gothic romance along the lines of Jane Eyre or Rebecca than a horror film. A nurse comes from Canada to work at the plantation house, and finds that lady of the house is zombie (although that is not revealed until later. For the nonce she just seems to be sort of catatonic). There is budding romance between the plantation’s master and the nurse;  his brother and wife had had an affair years ago which the natives suspect had something to do with her malady. Has she been turned into a zombie out of revenge?  There are whole voodoo scenes in the jungle but I must say it’s not very scary, just moody. The spirit is all very scientific, and never taps into the superstition that makes an expressionistic film like White Zombie so terrifying.


Revenge of the Zombies (1943)

This sequel to King of the Zombies (1941) has the same Nazi driven plot, but a fairly solid cast for such a low budget cheapie, including John Carradine, Gale Storm, Mantan Moreland, and western star Bob Steele. 


Voodoo Man (1944)

Quite a disappointment. Imagine a movie with this title without any actual Africans! The “voodoo” scenes consist of Bela Lugosi and George Zucco in wizard outfits with John Carradine making idiotic faces and beating a bongo. The nefarious plot? They have trapped four individual female motorists on the same stretch of road and turned them into zombies. Zucco, as the least plausible American gas station attendant ever, tips off Lugosi that the motorist is preceding down the road, and then Lugosi uses a special machine that causes her car engine to fail. Lugosi is trying to do some kind of soul transference. He has kept his dead wife alive for the past 22 years but she is somnambulant. He will use these women to bring her fully to life. Why he is doing this all the sudden after 22 years of not doing this is unexplained. Carradine’s role as a lackey is especially thankless and humiliating. Can he have been that hard up? At any rate, the authorities figure it out somehow and come rescue the women.


Zombies on Broadway (1945)

A horror comedy starring, Wally Brown and Alan Carney. They are often referred to as “RKO’s answer to Abbott and Costello“, through to me the combination is closer in spirit to Wheeler and Woolsey or Martin and Lewis (though the latter two came after). And further, the movie in question is often referred to as RKO’s answer to Abbott and Costello’s Universal Monster spook comedy team-ups. BUT for the inconvenient fact that those started coming out a few years AFTER Zombies on Broadway. Likewise it’s often assumed that Zombies on Broadway was a spin-off of or sequel to Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie, which was released two years earlier. But apart from the word “zombie”, a Caribbean setting and that it’s the same studio, I’d say the connection is overstated.

The plot of this movie is pretty funny (i.e. enjoyably far fetched). Sheldon Leonard is a gangster who is opening a voodoo themed nightclub in Times Square. But he needs to have a REAL zombie on hand for the launch event or a Walter Winchell-esque radio columnist will trash the place. Carney and Brown are the publicists who caused this whole mishigas by promising an actual zombie in their press release. The gangster is not amused. He send them on a tramp steamer to Haiti, to bring back a real zombie — or else. After many spooky encounters, they actually manage to bring one back — It’s Carney, who has been zombified by a witch doctor back on the island. (Bela Lugosi plays the mad scientist who makes zombies. Thus, if anything it’s more of a sequel to White Zombie). Anyway, ironically Carney reverts to himself just before the gangster sees him, causing yet another crisis.  But the boys manage to fake it and it all turns out alright.

Despite the fact that this is a comedy, the zombie effect they use (prosthetic bugged-out eyes) is plenty disturbing. Want to see it? It’s embedded in my Wally Brown post here.


Valley of the Zombies (1946)

Other than the title, this one by low budget Republic Studios has little to with conventional notions of zombiehood, although it does feature a mad scientist who keeps himself undead with a fresh supply of stolen blood. It was directed by Philip Ford, son of Francis Ford and nephew of John Ford. 


Voodoo Woman (1957) 

A grade Z AIP picture, though with an interesting parallel structure. Mike Connors (later tv’s Mannix) is a safari guide who leads an unprincipled female fortune hunter and her peers into the jungle to search for the gold she believes is deep in voodoo country. Meanwhile, a mad scientist is experimenting on a mix of voodoo and biochemistry to make an indestructible new species that will respond to his psychic commands. His first go at the monster refuses to cooperate – won’t kill. Later both plot threads come together, and the scientist gets his hands on the fortune hunting woman, turning her into a monster. But she too refuses to cooperate. Too greedy. The usual mishigas at the end wraps it all up.


Voodoo Island (1957)

A millionaire developed acquires a South Seas Island and resolves to turn it into a resort. Unfortunately, there are rumors of voodoo and other dangers on the island, so he hires professional debunker Boris Karloff and a crew that includes Elisha Cook, Jr. to go see what’s what. Unfortunately they do encounter zombies and voodoo (despite the fact that these islands are in the wrong ocean for that), but also natural dangers like poisonous snakes, but most impressively of all giant man-eating (actually woman-eating) plants. A low budget cheapie.

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