An engaged couple, Madeleine (Madge Bellamy) and Neil (John Harron), have travelled all the way from a voyage to New York to stop off at Haiti, persuaded by someone they met on the journey, Beaumont (Robert Frazer). However, he has ulterior motives for coaxing them to this island community, the main one being that he has fallen in love with Madeleine and wishes to prevent the marriage going ahead. The couple are unaware of this, believing it will be a charming place to be wed, yet once they reach it they are disturbed by what they find: especially a local plantation owner called Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi)...
After his role in Dracula made him a star, Lugosi quickly found his brooding, exotic European looks and strong accent typecast him as the bad guy, something that would colour practically every role he would take afterwards. He had made his name in Europe as a skilled performer of Shakespeare, but for ever more he would now be the "heavy" as he termed it, and White Zombie did little to help him escape that straightjacket. Such parts kept him working, certainly, but were also his professional undoing as he drifted into lower and lower budgeted films.
And yet, when you watch Lugosi in an effort such as this you're reminded what a vital presence in horror movies he was, even when they were not doing him any favours. As with his other endeavours, you cannot imagine anyone else playing his role, and Legendre is used by director Victor Halperin as an almost unknowable evil, weighed down by mystery about how precisely he came by his powers and how far he will go to exercise them. His motives appear to be financial at first, but as the story progresses you're not so sure and he seems to be putting victims in a trancelike state purely for the feeling of power it gives him.
Reputedly the first film to use the word "zombie", this was no George A. Romero gorefest, rather the more traditional voodoo-infused living dead of yore, so the zombie characters are more an extension of Legendre's personality as they do his bidding. He needs them as what is more or less slave labour to work on his plantations and in his mills, and in an eerie scene they are depicted turning huge wheels, oblivious to the fact that one of their number has fallen into the machinery to be crushed. Beaumont asks Legendre to help him out in winning Madeleine away from Neil with his sorcery, apparently unaware this will mean she becomes one of the undead as well.
The bride-to-be's death is staged and she is buried on the island, but it's all a hoax and she is removed from her coffin by Legendre's lackeys to live in his clifftop castle (are there many of those in Haiti?). She cannot speak, barely interacts with anyone, but she can play the piano, one of many curious details about this which offer it the atmosphere of a dream. But maybe not a nightmare, as while it may be a narrative concerning itself with the supernatural, it all comes over as being at some distance from its characters and their concerns; it's difficult to be anything but the detatched observer here, not least because the surviving prints are in such terrible shape, with a hissing and crackly soundtrack and murky look. In spite of that, Lugosi's otherworldliness, emphasised by the closeups on his eyes and hands, is the main boost to the sleepwalking pace and the best reason for watching.