Bela Lugosi introduced the world to the zombies in 1932 – The Hollywood Reporter

Zack Snyder’s Army of the dead, which opened in theaters on May 14 and hits Netflix on May 21, owes a tip of the hat – and perhaps the chipping of a limb – to the 1932s White zombie, the first zombie movie.

An independent feature film shot mainly on the Universal lot and with Bela Lugosi, White zombie did not receive the same critical applause accorded to Universal Dracula – the horror movie that made Lugosi a star – and Frankenstein, both released in 1931. “If he doesn’t succeed at anything else,” wrote one reviewer, “he at least teaches a number of people in the audience what a Zombie is.” As THRAccording to native superstition, a ‘Zombie’ is a half-dead creature, but without the blood-sucking inclinations of the vampire of Dracula Fame.”

The film, based on the 1929 book The magical island by William Seabrook, follows a woman who travels to Haiti, where she falls under the spell of the voodoo master Murder Legendre (Lugosi), who has filled his candy with zombies. One downside was that the film, directed by B-movie horror maestro Victor Halperin, was old-fashioned and cheesy – a big step back from the advancements made in the genre by the previous production of Universal. The performances were exaggerated and the score came mainly from old silent picture signals. But White zombie benefited from an avant-garde promotional campaign imagined by Hal Horne, publicity director of the film’s distributor, United Artists.

Horne drew crowds of curious New Yorkers to the Rivoli Theater, drawn to “the sudden appearance of nine zombies” atop the marquee, as he later wrote. The women wore “flowing white dresses”, the men seemed to have been “dug up from the ground”. To sell the illusion, loudspeakers broadcast “the cries of the vultures, the crushing of the sugar mill and the beating of tom toms among other distressing sounds.” Zombie was a modest box office success – it even led to a contract for Halperin at Paramount Pictures – and enjoyed an afterlife as a midnight film, filled with Rocky horror-style public participation.

THR stated that “White Zombie” “wrote about the box office” in its June 17, 1932 review.
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This story first appeared in the May 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.


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