I have to admit that it's actually pretty intriguing to go back to a time before George A. Romero gave us the form of zombies we all know and love now. I covered a little bit of that in my review for 'The Ghost Breakers', but I thought it might be a good idea to delve a little deeper into the origins of what it actually meant to be a zombie at one point.
Nowadays, zombies are considered a pretty damn basic concept; flesh-eating, re-animated dead people, often representing society's "zombie-like" ways. They are usually some sort of metaphor; 'Dawn of the Dead' made that concept super famous by having the zombies basically represent having consumerism take us over. But back before this idea became standard, zombies were still very much based in Voodoo, and that's the case here. These "zombies" aren't exactly dead people, they are just mindless, and obey commands at the ready.
It all starts when Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse, is hired to care for sugar plantation owner, Paul Holland's (Tom Conway) wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon). This leads her to the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian; home to a small white community and descendants of African slaves. Here, Betsy meets the likes of Wesley Rand (James Ellison), Paul's half brother, and Jessica, but she meets Jessica as a zombie-like character, vacant in expression and quite creepy to look at. Betsy soon learns that Jessica's the victim of spinal cord damage from a serious illness, leaving her with none of her own willpower.
As Betsy begins to fall for Paul, she makes it her mission to make him happy by doing anything it takes to cure Jessica. Soon, Betsy is lead down a dark and mysterious road of voodoo, zombies, and the seemingly bizarre culture of the island's locals. She also begins to discover that there's much more than meets the eye when it comes to the Holland family. So, it's not quite as action-filled or dreadful as your commonplace zombie movie today, but it's an interesting look into voodoo culture (at least as it was interpreted in 1943) nonetheless. I bring it up a lot when it comes to this kind of material, but I still think 'The Serpent and the Rainbow' may be the most intriguingly scary look into this stuff. Just remember that Voodoo, in reality, isn't quite what it is in the movies.
The film is quite passable, but I have to admit that I found it to drag in certain parts. What does sell this film, however, is the sheer creepiness of it all. Certain lighting techniques, and some creepy acting from certain characters really add to the atmosphere. There's even a particularly spooky looking starway that leads up a tower here that reminds me a lot of the atmosphere I encountered with 'Nosferatu'. So when it came to setting an appropriately creepy mood, they accomplished things quite nicely here. It's also short enough that, though there's a certain drag, it doesn't drag for long until you come to something interesting.
While the film isn't particularly fun by any means, it's quite serious in tone, and that adds a whole new twist of horror to what we've seen lately with a lot of the fun Universal monster stuff that's been going on. 'White Zombie' technically predates it, but it does still stand as one of the famous "roots of zombie lore" films out there, and rightfully so. I can't say I consider it a masterpiece, necessarily, but it's certainly solid for its creepy tone, and a lot of the visuals hold up even now as something with the potential to send chills up one's spine. I mean, just look at the zombie dude in the picture.