(director: Victor Halperin; screenwriters: Garnett Weston/based on The Magic Island by William Seabrook; cinematographer: Arthur Martinelli; editor: Harold McLernon; music: ; cast: Bela Lugosi (Murder Legendre), Madge Bellamy (Madeline Short), John Harron (Neil Parker), Joseph Cawthorn (Dr. Bruner, Missionary), Robert Frazer (Charles Beaumont), Clarence Muse (coach driver), Brandon Hurst (Silver, butler); Runtime: 69; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Edward Halperin; United Artists; 1932)
“I believe it’s the first Hollywood production to feature zombies.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A nightmarish old-fashioned gothic tale that’s good on atmosphere, pleasantly feels like a silent film with its sparse dialogue and stagy sets, and creates a healthy mixture of cinematic fright and amusing silliness. This cheaply made B film, made by the small indie company called Amusement Security and released by United Artists, was out of circulation for a long time due to legal battles. It’s based on the novel The Magic Island by William Seabrook and is scripted by Garnett Weston, and directed by Victor Halperin (“Revolt of the Zombies”/”Supernatural”) as if it were a lyrical melodrama that brings into play possession, necrophilia and sexual conquest of a virgin by supernatural forces. The director never made another film that even came close to what he achieved here. Voodoo Haitian-style is served up for both its fright and comic value. I believe it’s the first Hollywood production to feature zombies, and you can imagine where we’d be if we didn’t have them in so many of our modern horror films. Bela Lugosi stars after his success in Dracula but unwise business decision in turning down the monster part in Frankenstein, which made Boris Karloff his chief rival in the horror field. Speculation has it that Bela was now afraid to turn down roles that might also turn out to be that juicy and therefore accepted this role for only $900. Nevertheless, this turns out to be one of Bela’s better performances and one worth savoring for his fans. Supposedly Bela exercised his right of artistic control and rewrote dialogue and even whole scenes.
It has Neil Parker (John Harron) and, the American innocent, Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy), a nice young couple here to get married, take a coach at night in Haiti that passes a funeral in which bodies are being buried in the road to prevent their being stolen. Their native driver tells them about zombies, the undead, who were once corpses taken by the grave robbers and are now made into zombie slaves to work in the local sugar mill. On the road they meet the scary “Murder” Legendre (Bela Lugosi), owner of the sugar mill that employs the zombies. He snatches Madeleine’s scarf, as the driver moves fast to get out of there and take them to their destination. They arrive at the mansion of the wealthy Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), someone they just met on a cruise and in whose place they plan to get married. Beaumont is nuts about Madeleine and when he can’t persuade her to dump Neil and marry him instead, he seeks the help of the black magician Legendre. He offers supernatural assistance through a potion that makes Madeleine after the wedding ceremony suddenly die after seeing Legendre’s face (the face of death) in the cup of wine she’s drinking. She’s then revived through Legendre’s voodoo and comes back to life as a zombie. But Beaumont is disappointed and says her beauty is still there but she is empty without her soul, and wants her returned as before. Instead Legendre is slowly making Beaumont into a zombie and says he has his own plans for the beautiful young lady. Neil, in the meantime, seeks the help of the friendly island missionary preacher, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), who lays out the whole zombie trip for the confused groom and widower and anyone in the audience who is also baffled by such a religious practice. While searching for his wife’s grave the inebriated Neil stumbles across the castle, by the cliffs and beach, where he spots his very alive zombie wife and goes to rescue her. With the help of the eccentric missionary everything turns out rosy for Neil and Madeleine, as she’s released from her stupor as the good forces triumph over the evil ones when Legendre falls to his death in the sea after being pushed by the doomed Beaumont.
REVIEWED ON 10/28/2006 GRADE: B