"A cloud of vultures always hovers over the house of the living dead."
Film historians usually point to White Zombie as the first film to feature zombies. It was written by Canadian Garnett Weston (Supernatural) and directed by Victor Halperin (Party Girl, Revolt of the Zombies). Though the film has largely been panned by critics, its financial success was enough to influence Paramount to place Victor Halperin under contract. White Zombie is an independent film that was shot largely on rented sets at Universal Studios. It was then distributed by United Artists.
The film stars the incomparable Bela Lugosi as 'Murder' Legendre, a student of voodoo who supplants his Haitian voodoo master and turns his enemies into zombies as free slave labour. The story begins when Madeline Short Parker (Madge Bellamy) and her fiance, Neil Parker (John Harron), arrive in Haiti at the invitation of the wealthy Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). En route to Beaumont's house, the carriage driver is startled by a group of what he calls walking corpses and Legendre lets his strange gaze fall upon Madeline.
The couple eventually arrive safely at Beaumont's home where they are met by a missionary named Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) whom Beaumont has called there to perform the couple's wedding ceremony. Beaumont feigns interest in the couple but, in truth, he has fallen in love with Madeline and hopes to convince her to marry him instead of Neil. Beaumont greets his visitors and then leaves them to freshen up for the ceremony while he goes off to take care of some business matters.
Beaumont is picked up in a carriage driven by a strange, emotionless zombie and taken to meet Legendre at his factory. At the factory, Beaumont sees a small army of zombies working restlessly at various tasks. When he meets with Legendre, he discusses his love of Madeline and his fear that she will not throw off Neil to marry him. Legendre says there is only one way to ensure her compliance and he explains how he creates his zombies using some kind of drug. Beaumont insists that there must be another way but Legendre insists he take the drug in case he changes his mind. Beaumont then leaves for home where the wedding ceremony is shortly to begin.
Back at his home, everyone is ready for the wedding, and as Beaumont walks Madeline down the aisle he tries to convince her to marry him. She refuses and Dr. Bruner marries her to Neil. After the ceremony, Beaumont proposes a toast but he has tainted Madeline's drink with the drug given to him by Legendre. Madeline faints and shortly thereafter is pronounced dead. Neil is distraught and turns to drink. Sometime later, Beaumont and Legendre remove Madeline's "corpse" from her tomb and it is revealed that she is actually undead; alive but drained of any soul or mind.
Almost immediately, Beaumont begins to regret what he has done. He realizes that Madeline is practically lifeless and everything he loved about her is gone. He confronts Legendre and begs him for a way to restore her. He even offers his life for hers. Legendre refuses as he has taken a liking to Madeline himself. He poisons Beaumont with his zombie drug but Beaumont takes so little that it takes a long while for him to completely change. He remains living and thinking but loses the ability to speak.
Meanwhile, Neil and Dr. Bruner discover that Madeline's body is missing. This confirms certain suspicions of Bruner's about Legendre and Beaumont. They seek out a local witch doctor who informs them about zombies and how they can be created. The duo then seek out Legendre to confront him and they discover what has become of Madeline. Legendre commands a zombie to knock Neil unconscious and when he is, he commands Madeline to kill him. However, some deep part of Madeline is still in love with Neil and she is able to resist the command.
Neil regains consciousness and the action moves outside to a terrace that overlooks the ocean. Legendre sends a group of zombies after Neil but he is able to outwit them and they fall off the cliff to their doom. Then Legendre faces Neil and Bruner himself but he has forgotten Beaumont who manages to attack from behind and as they grapple, Legendre also falls to his death. Legendre dead, his powers are dissolved and Madeline returns to her living self.
Though critics often comment on the film's poor acting I've seen far worse. I think the story is a bit simple and I would have liked a little more clarification on the zombies and whether they're actually dead or just under some kind of spell but I have a feeling that even the filmmakers didn't have those kinds of answers. They certainly couldn't know that they were giving birth to an entire horror sub-genre that would become so popular. Rob Zombie famously named his first band after this film. If you're a Bela Lugosi fan (and who isn't?) you really have to check this film out and zombie fans will also enjoy seeing the origins of the species.