It is altogether typical of Bela Lugosi's lousy business judgement that he accepted one of his finest film roles for a mere $500 dollars. In the haunting low-budgeter White Zombie, Lugosi stars as Murder Legendre, a shadowy character who exercises supernatural powers over the natives in his Haitian domain.
Coveting beautiful Madge Bellamy as his bride, wealthy Robert Frazier is refused her hand in marriage.
He enters into an unholy agreement with Lugosi, whereby Madge will fall ill and die, then be resurrected as a zombie-and, implicitly, Frazier's love-slave. This is accomplished, but Lugosi, relishing the hold he has over Frazier, refuses to release Madge's soul.
She is ultimately rescued from Living Death by her faithful beau Robert Harron and missionary Joseph Cawthorn (heretofore merely the comedy relief).
Few talkie horror films have ever so expertly captured the feel of the silent cinema as White Zombie; the film's ethereal, ghostlike ambience enables the audiences to accept even the most ludicrous of plot twists.
The producers, Victor and Edward Halperin, use the film's tiny budget to their advantage, evocatively suggesting the horrors that they haven't the financial wherewithal to show on screen. Lugosi is superb throughout, making the most of such seemingly innocuous lines as Well, well, we understand one another better, now.
Long ignored or shunted aside as insignificant, White Zombie can hold its own with any of the like-vintage Universal horror classics.