Controlling the Zombie

30 June 2014

The character of Murder Legendre looms large over the image of Haiti that is portrayed in the film, White Zombie. He is a well-known person on the island, and he is conspicuously European. Legendre owns a large estate and runs a large sugar plantation. But what makes this character the most dangerous to the Haitian people is that he is a zombie master (White Zombie 1932.) In the article “The Zombie Media Monster’s Evolution to Empty Undead signifier” Ryan Lizardi states, “Thematically, [zombies] exhibit … the importance and preoccupation with concepts of control, loss of control, and fear of being controlled” (Lizardi 92.) As a former slave colony, the people of Haiti have a particular fear of losing control or being controlled by others. The character Murder Legendre of White Zombie shows up as a symbol of their colonial past, and the only way for them to regain their own control is to remove him as a symbol of the former colonial regime.

In a movie set in Haiti dealing with Haitian myths, one might expect the welfare of the Haitian people would be one of the main themes.  In fact, in the article, “Thinking Dead: Our Obsession with the Undead and Its Implications” Murali Balaji said, “Race is another element of zombie texts, seen both overtly and subtextually, as zombies are seen as stand-ins for racial and ethnic others” (Balaji xii.) Most of the film only deals with race in a subtextual way. The narrative of White Zombie revolves around the conversion of a white woman into a zombie for the sole pleasure of one of the rich white plantation owners of the island (White Zombie 1932.) while at first this story line seems to be missing the point of setting a film in an exploited land by leaving the Haitians out of the main story, this decision may have been made consciously to avoid offending the sensibilities of a 1930’s audience. Due to the prejudices of the day, the viewing public who may be convinced to help the exploited of other countries would likely have been chased off by a film that revolved completely around the problems of a foreign people.

Black characters are used in very few places throughout the film, and when they are used they are part of a crowd of extras with only three exceptions. The carriage driver, Pierre the witchdoctor that Dr. Bruner asks about the death of Madeline, and the former witchdoctor that Legendre has turned into a zombie are the only black characters that have any extended screen time and both of the witchdoctors were played by white actors in black face. By keeping the screen time of black characters to a minimum the film makes a statement about the second class status of the black people living in Haiti.

The roles played by the black characters also play a part in showing the disparity between the races on the Island of Haiti. In the beginning of the film, the group of people mourning at a funeral consists of black actors (White Zombie 1932.) While the group does fill the role of exposition giving the carriage drive the opportunity to inform Madeline, Neil and the film’s audience about the cultural and religious practices of the Haitian people, the group of mourners also works as an obstacle for the white characters. Therefore, the black carriage driver and the group of black mourners exemplify the way that the white characters think about the Haitians: while alone Haitians can make perfectly fine servants, such as carriage drivers, taken as a group they are a strange and unknowable hindrance and must be avoided as much as possible.

All of the white characters in the film live in opulent mansions far removed from the Haitian people. Neil and Madeline have come to the island to get married in the opulence of Beaumont Manor. Charles Beaumont lives in luxury with large rooms and expensive furniture. He has the means to throw a feast for people that he barely knows, and he is constantly attended by his butler named Silver. Even Doctor Bruner, the preacher lives in a large house with expensive furniture and decorations (White Zombie 1932.)  The only reason that they can afford these things is because of the plantation economy that takes advantage of the low labor cost afforded by the poor Haitian people.

While all of the white characters in the film are making their livings on the backs of the black Haitians, only Murder Legendre is honest about his exploitation of the Haitian people. In only one scene does the film ever explicitly deal with the subject of race in any overt way, and this scene takes place in Legendre’s sugar processing plant. The sugar plant is being run exclusively by zombies. The zombies that are doing the all of the labor are black Haitians, but the white zombies are seen in the background standing around and watching, and the camera zooms in to show the pained faraway look on the faces of the zombies that are stooped over the cranks that they are pushing to turn the sugarcane grinder (White Zombie 1932.)

The white zombies that line the edges of the plant floor resemble foreman inspecting the work being done and keeping their workers in line. However, in the article, “Race, colonialism and the evolution of the Zombie,” Cory Rushton and Christopher Moreman state, “Aside from being scary monsters, what [zombies] share in common is an idea of subjugated agency” (Moreman and Rushton 3.) Since the zombies working in Legendre’s sugar plant have no agency, the reason that the white zombies are standing around watching the black zombies work is to bring the plight of the Haitian people forced to work under deplorable conditions to the viewing public. But this is where the politics of the film get complicated. While the narrative of the film has taken time to ask the viewers to feel for the exploited Haitian people the casting of the film takes advantage of prejudices of the day and hires two white actors to play black characters.

Difficulties in making sense of the film’s complicated politics aside, the film concludes when Legendre loses control of his crew of zombies and they throw him off a cliff into the surging waves of the ocean below (White Zombie 1932.) While the tossing of Legendre into the ocean symbolizes Haiti’s removal of exploitative interests from overseas. But Neil Madeline and Doctor Bruner remain showing that even with the removal of the biggest hindrance to the Haitian people removed there will still be a very long road before Haiti is able to recover from the damage it received at the hands of colonial oppressors. In their article, Rushton and Moreman state, “Zombies, for their part, represent in the African tradition not simply the walking corpse of Western imagination but are synonymous with a wide range of monsters” (Moreman and Rushton 3.) Using Rushton and Moreman’s knowledge of zombies, one can see that the zombie problem that the film White Zombie is trying to eradicate is the outside interference in Haiti’s affairs.

Work Cited

Balaji, Murali,. Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013.

Lizardi, Ryan. “The Zombie Media Monster’s Evolution to Empty Undead signifier.” Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013. Print.

Moreman, Christopher M. “Race, colonialism and the evolution of the Zombie.” Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2011. Print.

White Zombie. Halpern V. United Artists, 1932. Film.

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