A couple is persuaded to get married at Monsieur Beaumont's estate in Haiti. Beaumont really wants to take the woman with the help of Legendre (Lugosi), an expert on mind control.
I'm not sure why this film is so highly praised by classic horror fans. It's watchable but I'll never watch it again. A second view will only get worse. I recommend this film simply for the fact that it's one of our earliest horror films about zombies. Now, these aren't the flesh-eating zombies like Romero made famous in the 60s; think Serpent and the Rainbow only with less action. White Zombie is about real Haitian zombies, who are basically humans drugged and used for slaves. But here it's mixes the drugging, which is what a true zombie is, with the slave aspect. Legendre has zombies who can perform pretty complicated tasks, which is NOT what a true zombie can do. I wish it would've stuck with the true zombie idea of mindless, almost dead people or went full-throttle with the flesh-eating zombies. I know, I know, the Romero-style zombies didn't exist yet and it wouldn't have been allowed in the 30's but that's how I feel, especially if a remake is ever done.
The movie reminds me a little of Lugosi's Dracula with the mind control, slaves and frequent close-ups of Lugosi's eyes. He controls his slaves with a weird gripping of both of his hands together. White Zombie was made just one year after Dracula so I bet they used his Dracula image to its fullest here on purpose.
The story is very simple, as the Synopsis above states. Beaumont gets Legendre to make Madeleine want to be with him but she becomes a mindless zombie and Beaumont wants her changed back. That's basically it. Nothing exciting at all. It's very slow-paced. I suppose this was a cutting-edge film for its time but it lacks the charm prevalent in the Universal Monster films of the same era.
My favorite part of this film is the appearance of Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre which is very creepy. He looks like the spitting image of what I think the devil would look like if he took human form. He wears a black suit, cape and hat. His eyebrows are connected into one long brow and goatee add a certain kind of mystique. But his appearance doesn't make up for his slow talking because of his lack of English skills then. I can accept it in Dracula but it is tiring with his pauses ... after ... every ... word. Besides that aspect, he's the true star here. The rest of the cast is adequate but no one stands out.
Now, one point really gets to me with the cast. It's set in Haiti, right? Where are all of the Haitian black people?? We see a bunch of people in the intro but I can't tell what ethnicity. There's a few black people (3 or 4) but not important parts. None of Legendre's slaves are black nor any of the characters relative to the story itself. I don't mean this to be racist but it seems like it's racist NOT to have any black zombies. I mean it's Haiti! It's obviously not shot in Haiti but still, they shouldn't have set it as part of the story!
The SFX? There's really none besides the set which is pretty good for its day. Some of the castle is great on the inside but the outside looks like a painted backdrop, dark and foreboding but non-moving clouds looks too unrealistic. There's no gore.
The music bugged me because most of it doesn't fit. It's not horror music! It is totally out of place and ruins any semblance of a horror mood for me.
Overall, it's a good film for classic horror movie fans but if you like modern horror better then you won't like this. It's full of problems for me and I'm a classic horror movie fan! It's worth a view because of Lugosi, the atmosphere and one of our earliest horror films about zombies.