Magazine article American Cinematographer

White Zombie - Today's Unlikely Classic

Magazine article American Cinematographer

White Zombie - Today's Unlikely Classic

Article excerpt

The word zombie was introduced to the American reading public in 1929 in "The Magic Island," a credulous but fascinating book about Haitian Voodoo by William B. Seabrook. Playwright Kenneth Webb brought zombies to the drama in his play, "Zombie," which opened in New York City in February of 1932. In March of that year Webb brought suit against movie producers Edward R. and Victor Hugo Halperin, who had announced their intent to make a movie called White Zombie from an original script by Garnett Weston.

Webb, who had been negotiating movie rights to his play, felt (understandably) that his territory was being infringed upon. The defendants demurred, saying the play, having closed after 21 performances, could not have been affected adversely by their plans for a film along admittedly similar lines and that the word zombie was in the public domain.

The Halperin brothers won the case and completed their movie for summer release, thereby introducing the zombie to motion pictures. Their film had a boxoffice star, Bela Lugosi, fresh from his successes at Universal in Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue, and the prestige of a United Artists release - quite an honor for an outside producer in those days. United Artists was a company of enormous prestige which was owned by and released the product of a select group of top independent producers, such as Samuel Goldwyn, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Joseph M. Schenck, Howard Hughes, Charles Chaplin, Lewis Milestone and Henry King.

Although the Halperins had been associated with major studios during the silent era, they were on their own in the tough world of the talkies and in the depths of the Great Depression, occupying an office at RKO-Pathe Studio in Culver City. They now found it necessary to operate within the financially strictured parameters of "Poverty Row." No one in the industry would have mentioned the Halperins in the same breath with Goldwyn or Chaplin.

White Zombie was bankrolled by Amusement securities Corporation, a New York firm specializing in motion picture financing. The capital involved fell far short of the needs of a United Artists sort of project, putting the producers in a caste with the likes of Allied, Invincible-Chesterfield, Majestic, Monogram and Tiffany.

A typical independent operation of the era obtained financing, arranged for deferment of lab costs, rented studio space by the day or week as needed, and avoided retakes. Special effects other than art titles and optical transitions were generally not considered cost viable. Schedules were grueling and budgets were tight, features often being brought in for as little as $8,000 to $10,000 with from four to 10 days of shooting. Two weeks and $75,000 constituted a superproduction well beyond the grasp of most Poverty Row impresarios. The working hours for cast and crew were long and the pay was scale or less (the actual compensation often being less than what was reported officially). Film editors crammed six-reel features onto five reels because sound tracks were taxed by the reel $500 per.

Low budget Westerns for the rural and Saturday matinee audiences dominated the independent output. The non-Western features were designed chiefly as the "exciting co-hits" at the bottom of double-feature programs. Sometimes they were awful, sometimes they helped, and - occasionally - they saved the bill by providing the entertainment an audience failed to find in the bill topper.

With a rumored $50,000 in hand the HaIperins were able to produce their film with amazing speed and economy, yet achieve spectacular production values through proper utilization of settings, photographic technique and special effects. Strong preproduction planning was the key. The cinematography, which is of major studio quality throughout, is by Arthur Martinelli, ASC.

The Halperins - Victor always directed and Edward was the line producer - came to Hollywood from Chicago in the early 1920s as a producing team. …

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