As Easter approaches, Christians all over the world prepare to mourn the death of Christ on Good Friday, and then to celebrate his resurrection three days later, on Easter. For most believers, these events mark the holiest days on the calendar. Jesus’s mastery over death and his power of resurrection form the foundation for the hope Christianity offers the world.
Very rarely do Christians shudder at the horror of such power. It is for this reason, I recommend that Christians everywhere take an hour or so on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday to watch the bizarre 1932 horror classic, White Zombie.
When Victor Halperin and Edward Halperin independently produced and directed White Zombie, the movie somewhat befuddled reviewers at the time, but it struck a chord with audiences, which made the indie horror a hit despite (or perhaps because of) its campiness and general strangeness. The film is also credited with bringing the zombie to the screen for the first time, and while eventually, George Romero would do something different with it, White Zombie is still a landmark for this reason.
Not only did the film lend its name to Rob Zombie’s band, White Zombie, it also boldly addresses issues of race, class, and colonialism, as well as patriarchal attitudes about the objectification of women’s bodies. For these reasons alone, the film remains an object of fascination for modern viewers and is far more interesting, despite its technical flaws, than many other films of the time.
In addition to its socio-political critiques, the movie also offers a fascinating exploration of religion. Its somewhat problematic treatment of Voodoo reveals a Christian attitude about indigenous religious practices that helps explain a certain convergence between Christianity and White Nationalism (perhaps this explains why the Nazi government approved this film for distribution in Germany).
But here I want to focus on how the film deals with Christianity itself. Through its images and plot, White Zombie repeatedly perverts orthodox Christian symbols and narratives, forcing the viewer to shudder at the prospect of a dark god wielding power of the forces of life and death.
White Zombie tells the story of Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and her fiancé Neil (John Harron) as they arrive at the Caribbean plantation of Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) only to be drawn into the horror of the living dead.
Beaumont has invited the young couple to have their wedding at his estate, and the middle-class couple, seduced by the allure of Beaumont’s wealth, accept the offer. Beaumont however has ulterior motives, as he lusts for Madeline himself and hopes to woo her away from Neil. So desperate is Beaumont’s desire, he employs the magical power of local zombie-master “Murder” Legendre (in a magnificent performance by Bela Lugosi, perhaps the finest of his career).
Legendre eventually helps Beaumont turn Madeline into a complacent zombie, giving him control over her body. Beaumont is ultimately unsatisfied with the result and runs into conflict with Legendre, who eventually begins the process of turning him into a zombie-servant.
The film climaxes with Neil discovering what has happened and in a series of credulous events, Legendre loses his zombies and is pushed off a cliff by the barely-still-cognizant Beaumont, breaking his spell over Madeline and returning all the madness to normal.
Uncanny Christian Imagery
White Zombie was a low-budget, independent film so there are technical flaws. But for all the film’s somewhat flimsy plot holes, its inversion of Christian motifs is profound and fully-realized through a masterful use of camera angles, shot composition, set-design, and costuming.
The film is stuffed full of Christian imagery, but it is imagery that is just a bit, well, off. Anyone familiar with the narratives and symbols of Christianity would instantly recognize much of this film’s formal elements, but also feel uncomfortable with what they see.
Freud wrote about such a feeling in his essay “The Uncanny,” which is a foundational text for horror studies to this day (though Mark Fisher’s short book The Weird and the Eerie has recently offered a useful elaboration on the concept — for people interested in such things, I highly recommend it). In short, Freud’s “uncanny” or “unheimlich” is the feeling produced when confronted with something simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. In robotics, the term has been adopted and altered as “the uncanny valley” to describe robots that are unnervingly realistic, despite their artificiality.
The Christian imagery of White Zombie functions in exactly this way.
The most salient symbol in Christianity is undoubtedly the cross. It is central to many Christian adherents’ understanding of Christ and the redemptive work of his sacrifice. And White Zombie is littered with them.
Yet there is theological debate about how the symbol of the cross puts too much emphasis on the death of Jesus, taking attention away from the ministries and teachings of his life.
This debate makes White Zombie’s eerie use of cruciform imagery a fascinating subject for discussion.
One of the most prominent images of the cross in this film appears on the chest of one of Legendre’s zombie-henchmen. It appears to be an Iron Cross from German military traditions (dating back to Prussian military practices). As the hooded zombie escorts Beaumont to Legendre, Beaumont looks in awe-struck horror at both the zombie’s dead face as well as the cross he prominently wears around his neck.
This particular cruciform image operates on multiple registers simultaneously. Clearly, Legendre has a history with the German government and this zombie serves as a kind of trophy of his triumph over a foe.
Yet this cross also appears in context with multiple other forms of the image and therefore carries a religious weight as well. Yes it is recognizable as a cross, but its elongated, flattened-out points twist the original religious meaning. It is uncanny, being simultaneously a cross and a not-cross.
One of the film’s most memorable shots also significantly features the symbol of the cross. In one of the film’s creepy castle settings, a corridor leads to a portal carved in the shape of a rounded cross, which almost appears flower-like. (This architectural motif is continued down the staircase of Beaumont’s great room, further emphasizing its importance). It is through this portal that two of the film’s most memorable shots are taken.
First we see Legendre framed in a shot through that cruciform portal as he ominously enters Beaumont’s home. The visual effect of this shot mimics the image of Christ on the Cross, which is unsettling given Legendre’s abject villainy.
Later, we see Madeline in her zombie state blankly occupy the same shot. While she is, unlike Legendre, a sympathetic figure, her complete lack of emotion or human affect contradicts the image of a suffering Christ on the Cross.
Furthermore, the thin, flowing gown she wears bears the same rounded cruciform pattern, giving an almost Papal appearance to her wardrobe.
Flipping Heaven and Hell
The Papal quality of her outfit is further emphasized as Madeline and Neil share a brief psychic connection, and this sequence effectively inverts Heaven and Hell.
As Neil journeys to Beaumont’s estate to rescue Madeline, he travels through a rocky, barren wasteland far below the elevated seaside manor. Madeline, conversely, stands rather majestically on a balcony overlooking the landscape. In her flowing robes covered in crosses, she evokes images of a Pope addressing gathered masses at the Vatican.
The religious nature of this psychic communion is deepened by an inventive, if somewhat clumsy, wipe that moves diagonally across the screen, then freezes, simultaneously showing Neil in his Hell with beatified Madeline in her elevated balcony. The shot recalls Orpheus and Eurydice.
Here however, the living Neil is in Hell and the zombified Madeline in Heaven, perverting the Papal imagery that the scene so richly draws upon. Death is up, while life is below. Heaven and Hell are inverted in a most uncanny manner.
Sunday School Horror
White Zombie goes out of its way to target familiar images and narratives from Christianity. Neil’s discovery of Madeline’s empty tomb, for example, is filmed as though taken directly from a Passion Play. It’s execution, however, inverts everything about its familiar reference, from gender roles to emotional impact.
One of the most interesting Biblical stories the film references is that of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, a foundational story for both Judaism and Christianity.
In the Bible, God instructs Abraham to take his only, long-awaited son, Isaac to the wilderness and sacrifice him by slitting his throat like a lamb. It turns out that this was only a test and God has an angel grab Abraham’s hand at the last second to stop the horrific act of human sacrifice. This is a disturbing story that believers have struggled with forever, but it is a central myth for theological questions about the relationship between God and his human creation.
This film makes sure to incorporate it into its vision of dark Christianity.
Here, Neil lies unconscious on an altar-like bench, while zombie-Madeline, under psychic orders from the god of her resurrection, Legendre, raises a knife to sacrifice him. Unlike the Biblical story, here the angel that stays her hand is family friend Dr. Bruner, whose hand emerges from behind a curtain to take the knife away from Madeline.
Like the rest of the film’s religious references, the story remains the same, yet the execution completely changes its meaning. In the Bible, God is responsible for the act of mercy that spares Isaac’s life. White Zombie’s god, Legendre, is merciless. It is a man that must stand against this evil god that wields the power of life and death.
For Christians, Easter is the holiest day of the year. It celebrates a loving God’s merciful act of overcoming that bleakest of human experiences, death. The power to resurrect the dead is the ultimate source of Christian hope, from which every good Christian virtue springs.
In White Zombie, this power becomes a nightmare. Legendre is a man who wields it not for mercy, but for control. This is the source of the film’s horrific power.
It is also a good thing for Christians to think about as they wield the power of their religion, both politically and in their personal relationships. When human beings mimic the power of the divine, all too often it results in horror, just as it does when Legendre wields the power of life like a sword. It is for this reason, that the demonic White Zombie remains a film worth watching at this most holy time of year.
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