That was fascinating! It's not flawless, but its qualities and unique points heavily outweigh its technical deficiencies.
Firstly it's the first proper zombie movie and to boot unlike anything else I've seen in the genre. This is pre-Romero, obviously, and so it's set in Haiti with voodoo, drums and superstitious natives. Furthermore the zombies aren't flesh-eaters but merely walking furniture, doing whatever they're commanded. The horror comes in with the fact that their master is Bela Lugosi.
This for starters is every kind of awesome. Modern zombie films don't really have villains, with their nearest equivalents being people like Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead. If you've got an unstoppable tide of flesh-eaters, who cares about some idiot who's obviously going to get eaten? White Zombie though has a proper evil antagonist and he's being played by Dracula! It's a gift of a role for Lugosi, who rules in this movie and would clearly like nothing more than to tear through the rest of the cast like a rattlesnake in a pet shop. He's playing someone called 'Murder' Legendre, by the way, in case you were under any doubt about whether he was a hero or not. Furthermore he's giving exactly the right amount of ham with his performance, which is invaluable in a movie where the tone's whiplashing all over the place as far as the acting is concerned. Lugosi's the rock of this movie. He sells it. Incidentally for years there have been rumours that he directed some of it too, with Clarence Muse claiming as much in an interview in the 1970s. By all accounts it's the Halperin brothers' best film, anyway.
So despite this being a zombie film, you've got a proper villain and a plot. That's remarkable enough already, but on top of that we have the zombies themselves. They look creepy rather than scary, but what makes them horrible is that we can empathise with them. Lugosi kills people, but then afterwards he makes them his slaves. There's a factory scene that startled me. It's like a private circle of Hell, with the world's first zombie mill and industrial accidents occurring before our eyes because the workers are brainless. That factory is one of the most remarkable images in this genre, but even that pales in comparison with the Madge Bellamy character. Even a pre-Code film like this can't bring itself to be explicit, but the fact that we see Bellamy in her underwear doesn't suggest that the sexual subtext is accidental. Here we have a beautiful, rather doll-like woman who's desired by a creepy, selfish man (Robert Frazer) who doesn't want her to marry anyone else. Enter Lugosi, exit Bellamy. The next thing we know, Frazer is keeping a passive, mindless Bellamy in his house for unspecified purposes.
Wow, that's vile. Zombie films are famous for often having subtext, but this isn't the usual theme of "the zombies are us". We've got slavery and sexual objectification. There's even an explicit racial angle, as is referenced in the title. Note that when this film was made in 1932, the abolition of slavery in the USA was still just about within living memory (the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865). Whether or not it was intentional, this is a film with some extreme comments to make on abusive power relationships.
Then you've got cool zombie imagery. What's cool about this film visually is that it's basically a silent movie with sound. You've got that silent-era shooting style with a static camera and elaborate tableaux, in which the actors are often a surprisingly minor part of the composition. Even intimate scenes are liable to done as a shot of a staircase with actors coming down it, for instance, rather than being focused on the actors themselves. Body language becomes more mannered, to make up for what's lost in line delivery. Add in the otherworldliness of silent films. Now imagine zombies being done in that style. It's fascinating! They don't have Tom Savini make-up or anything like that, but they have frozen facial expressions and a robotic walk, not even looking down even when descending stairs. I want more silent-era zombies! These guys are so awesome that I can even forgive the odd goofy expression, i.e. the one who always seems to be suffering anal invasion.
The film's main problem is that no one seems to have been giving the actors any direction, so you've got everything in the performances from outrageous silent-era ham (Robert Frazer) to an almost jarringly naturalistic performance from Joseph Cawthorn as a missionary (with a Yiddish accent). Cawthorn was known at the time as a comedian, but he's so truthful in his role here that he even finds a natural reading for the line "I've come too far to turn back now!" I was impressed. Prepare to cringe at his facial expression when the guy in blackface says "murder", though. This film was shot in eleven days, by the way.
There's a lot to enjoy in these visuals. There's a clear German Expressionist influence and some ambitious technical tricks, such as double exposures, split screens and a diagonal wipe. Look out for the special effects of a phantom Bellamy, for instance. However style needs content and so there's an outre sensibility here that's playing up the theatricality. Lugosi kills a victim with a voodoo doll, but not by sticking pins in it. No, he carves it out of a candle with a big knife, then holds it in a flame. That was sinister. They also brought in a vulture for a couple of scenes, for no reason at all except to freak out the audience. We think we've heard a scream, but it's the bird cawing.
The sets are impressive too, but that's less of an achievement since they shot at Universal Studios and rented old sets from films like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Cat and the Canary (1927). Oh, and Lugosi's make-up artist was Jack Pierce, more famous for Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy. Even the soundtrack is worth listening to. Note how many non-human things seem to be screaming, e.g. the vulture, or Lugosi's zombie mill. Then you've got some interesting choices in the score from Abe Meyer, who's drawing on obscure works and throwing in things like choral music, voodoo chants and drumming that he got from a specialist in ethnic music.
Apparently the film got bashed in 1932 for weak performances and an over-the-top story, but it did well enough at the box office to make Lugosi wish he'd got more money for being in it. Criticisms of the acting I can understand, with Robert Frazer in particular being just empty theatricality, but there's great stuff here from Lugosi and Cawthorn and I think the more glaring problem is inconsistency. Also look out for Brandon Hurst as a creepy-looking butler, having previously played Frollo opposite Lon Chaney's Hunchback of Notre Dame.
However I'll permit no criticism of the film's script, which is addressing powerful themes and hangs together just fine once you've accepted the premise that voodoo is real. They don't over-explain, but that's a good thing. The only dodgy bit is the finale, in which Lugosi dies a bit too easily and another character immediately wakes up as if their soul had been being suppressed by Lugosi's willpower or something. Nevertheless you've got to love the way the film largely abandons dialogue towards the end and officially turns into a silent movie, as if that's what it had been secretly yearning for all along.
This movie was thought lost until its rediscovery in the 1960s, by the way. There's also a Lugosi-free sequel, Revolt of the Zombies (1936), but that's less well regarded. Fundamentally, this is a proper horror film. It's got nasty and/or creepy-as-hell set pieces, such as the scene where zombies lift up and carry away a man, followed by screaming. Even the nice missionary gets a sinister introduction. However its real horror lies in its view of human nature and what people are prepared to do to each other, given the opportunity. Oh, and of course Bela Lugosi rules. "I have taken a fancy to you, monsieur." "If they regain their souls, they will tear me to pieces."