Bill Pullman goes to Haiti to investigate a zombie rumor with the help of a local doctor – but he didn’t expect the DOCTOR to be a PRETTY LADY, he tells us in voiceover. Pullman has been good in comedies (Spaceballs the year before this) and dramas (or whatever Lost Highway is) but I don’t buy him for a second here. The pretty lady is Cathy Tyson of Mona Lisa, and she and Paul Winfield almost make the movie worth watching.

The day after our guy makes sweet love to the pretty doctor, the government declares martial law and to show him they’re serious the local badman (S African Zakes Mokae of Dust Devil and Dilemma) pounds a nail through Pullman’s scrotum, but Pullman persists, and gets Mozart (Lodge 49 star Brent Jennings, I didn’t recognize him!) to mix him up some zombie powder to bring home. Everybody either dies, or dreams they’ve died, or comes back to life, and the silly explanatory titles at the beginning and end trying to frame this buncha nonsense as news/science don’t help anything.

Haiti, 1962: a guy dies after walking in shoes cursed with ashes of puffer-fish- innards, becomes part of an army of twilight zombies cutting cane, but awakens from his half-life and returns home.

Decades later, a rich white girl comes along with her petty problems and lack of belief or understanding, causing someone to ruin their life. The white girl is boarding-school Fanny, who befriends Haitian zombi child Melissa. Heartbroken after being dumped, Fanny visits Melissa’s mambo aunt Katy, paying an absurd amount for an improper ritual which accidentally summons the demon god Baron Samedi from that Goldeneye game.

Child (with killer phone case):

Zombi:

Violet Lucca in Reverse Shot:

The Baron taunts Katy for disrespecting her father, and, to use a Lynchian expression, something really bad happens to the girl and the woman. (What, exactly, we do not know, except that they are both being punished.) In the final shot, Mélissa emerges from an endless darkness wearing a white dress, the color of Dambala; for the rest of the West, it will likely read a symbol of purity. It’s perhaps the only image that could make sense at that point, unsatisfying as it may be. Receiving closure from relationships, stories, or life isn’t universally guaranteed.

Nocturama reference:

Mambo X-fade:

I guess the title refers to the ultimate horror, that in darkest Haiti, not only the deceased natives are being resurrected as workhorse zombie slaves but… white people, too! Good evocative opening, the clueless foreigners arriving to encounter a burial in the middle of the road (to avoid grave robbing) then asking directions from local zombiemaster Bela Lugosi. Of course the Christian missionary has been here 30 years and insists all this zombie nonsense is primitive superstition, but even he comes around by the end.

How are hipsters not waxing their eyebrows like this?

Since all 1930’s movies are about two white people wanting to be married, we’ve got Neil (John Harron of Satan in Sables, Karloff’s The Invisible Menace): simple, impulsive, a very slow learner… and Madeline (Madge Bellamy, star of Lazybones, who would later become infamous for shooting her millionaire ex-lover)… who is also desired by local fancyman Beaumont (Robert Frazer of The Vampire Bat), who has hired Neil in order to get closer to Mads. Beau fails to woo her from Neil, so he poisons her at the wedding, then has Lugosi resurrect her to marry.

“Surely you don’t think she’s alive in the hands of natives? Oh no, better dead than that!”

Even dense Neil figures out what has happened, teaming up with the pipe-smoking missionary (Joseph Cawthorn, William Powell’s dad in The Great Ziegfeld) to meet Haitian Witch Doctor Pierre (played by a Brit) for advice, learning that houses of the living dead can be identified by nearby vultures (played by hawks or falcons). Meanwhile Beau is bummed that Zombie Mads has no facial expressions or speech or emotions (but can still play piano), gets zombified himself for daring to complain to Lugosi about it. After a couple of attempted murders and a slow-motion shove-fight atop a cliff, Lugosi falls dead and Mads awakens (so her resurrection was permanent, but her stupor-state was maintained by Lugosi’s will?). Mostly the movie seems important for its historical place as the first zombie film, and for its wealth of Bela Lugosi poses and expressions, silently controlling zombies with hand gestures like he’s playing a Wii game.

Beau and Mads:

Nice pose… but not a vulture:

Produced by Victor’s brother Edward, the two Halperins also made a loose sequel set in Cambodia, gangster KKK drama Nation Aflame, and the Carole Lombard ghost thriller Supernatural.