Back in the day, zombies didn't lurch after the living and eat them like they do nowadays. They knew their place, which was to serve their master. In the case of Victor Halperin's White Zombie, reputedly the first film in that now inescapable genre, they took orders from the not-so-subtly named "Murder" Legendre, a mysterious Haitian nabob, played by Bela Lugosi. "They're not worried about long hours," Legendre notes, as he pitches his undead workers to a wary local plantation owner. Fighting words in 1932, with Roosevelt introducing the New Deal into Depression-afflicted America.
So this Kino Classics release is worth it if only for historical purposes, since it demonstrates that from the start zombie films embodied the Marxist paradigm of capitalism (Lugosi) versus labor (zombies). It also features a few racial and sexual twists along the way, in what is essentially a West Indian variation of Dracula (1931), the film that made Lugosi a star.
Here, instead of callow fop Harker losing his beloved Mina to the Count, we have callow banker Neil (John Harron) dragging his fiancée Madeline (Madge Bellamy) to Haiti, where he's promised a plum job opportunity. Alas, Madeline falls into the clutches of Legendre via a magic powder ("Just a pinhead!" he ghoulishly intones) that puts her in a zombie state. Whatever Legendre's nefarious plans might be for her, he must first contend with the Van Helsing–like Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), who has learned a few things in his 30 years as a missionary on the island.
Though atmospheric in its visuals, and with the terrifying absurdity of Lugosi at its cold heart, the pace and plot of Zombie can get a little zombified itself. But occasional Ed Wood–like campiness notwithstanding, it established a genre that would rise from the grave whenever the economic state of the cinema age might summon it.