White Zombie is often acknowledged as the first zombie movie. Like Plague of the Zombies some three decades later, there are no major black roles (surprising, given the plot takes place in Haiti, although not so surprising given the title). Most of the black people appear in the opening five minutes, in which our uptight, strikingly white hero and heroine (John Harron and Madge Bellamy) are being driven in the Haitian countryside by a black carriage driver (the scared, but not too scared, Clarence Muse), when they come across a spooky, chanting black funeral procession, with spooky, chanting locals burying the dead in the middle of the road. “And on your right, you’ll see white zombie master Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) and his, well, white zombies…”
Muse drops his passengers off, warning them to be careful of zombies (which is nice, considering they call him a “fool” for driving too fast; you’d drive fast too if you were a black man in a horror movie). Strangely, although the film takes place in Haiti, the majority of the zombies — particularly Legendre’s right-hand dead servants — are white. I didn’t think there were this many white people in all of Haiti, much less in one location. Even the maids and butlers are mostly white. Later, superstitious old black villager Pierre (Dan Crimmins) warns of the dangers of “Land of the Living Dead,” but even he, I suspect, is really a white guy in makeup. Where’s Jesse Jackson when you need him?