Friday, July 15, 2011

Origins of a band name

My son got me up at 5:30 yesterday morning, at least a half-hour earlier than he usually gets me up. Since the previous night was the first night in ages we hadn't taken him into bed with us, I was fine with it.

But it meant I needed something to do for the hour-and-a-half before I had to go to work. Really more like an hour-and-fifteen.

I thought of watching a movie, but it would have to be a really short one, like, under 75 minutes. As I was scrolling through the Netflix streaming options, I saw one that would qualify quite nicely: the 66-minute White Zombie from 1932. In fact, it was even better because I only needed to watch 58 minutes of it. I'd watched the first eight minutes of it something like three months earlier, and Netflix hadn't forgotten that fact.

And so it was that I watched a 1932 horror movie starring Bela Lugosi before work on an average Wednesday.

But the reason I started watching it two months ago was because of the band White Zombie.

I'm not a huge fan of White Zombie. I bought their album Astro-Creep: 2000 primarily because of my affection for the song "More Human Than Human," which I couldn't get enough of back in the late 1990s. Back then, if you wanted a song, you often had to buy the whole album. Sometimes you'd be fine about this, if you wanted to take a gamble on the band, based on your feelings toward the song you know. That wasn't the case for me with White Zombie. I was familiar enough with the rest of their stuff that I knew I wouldn't become an ardent fan. I don't dislike the rest of the music, but suffice it to say I've probably only listened to that album all the way through once, nor did I expect to listen to it more than that. That's how much I liked that song.

Still, I'm quite interested in Rob Zombie as a person, probably because he's also a director. Musicians make the transition to being actors all the time, but directors? Doesn't happen nearly as often. I have a surprising amount of affection for the two Zombie movies I've seen, The Devil's Rejects and House of 1,000 Corpses (I saw them in that order, not realizing the first was actually a sequel to the second). There's something about his violent, twisted, go-for-broke sensibilities that makes me deliciously frightened to see what he might imagine next. And I like the guy as a solo artist -- well, I like him exactly as much as I like his former band, which is to say that for a period of time, I couldn't get enough of one song in particular ("Dragula").

It was much more recently that I realized that the band White Zombie was preceded by a movie called White Zombie. Preceded by over five decades, in fact. For some reason, if Rob Zombie (born Robert Cummings) named his band after a horror film, I think he'd call it Leatherface or Chainsaw Massacre or Last House. (He couldn't go for the full titles with those films, it would be too on-the-nose). A black-and-white horror from the 1930s -- now that surprised me.

So I wanted to see what this movie was all about, this Bela Lugosi movie from 1932 that was instrumental in shaping Robert Cummings' very identity.

Let me start by saying that White Zombie reminded me a lot of Dracula, which was released the year before. Not just because both movies star Lugosi, and because both directors (Victor Halperin for Zombie, Tod Browning for Dracula) use the same effect of shining a light on Lugosi's intense eyes to make him seems more fearsome.

No, it's because both movies had much more of a capacity to be chilling than I gave them credit for. (I described the creepy aspects of Dracula here if you want to read them.) While I was creeped out by the visual touches Browning brought to his film, it was the sound design in White Zombie that really made me take notice. But let me give you a little bit of a plot synopsis first so you know what I'm talking about.

The movie concerns a couple who travel to Haiti to be married. I can't right now remember the reason they go to Haiti, since that was in the eight minutes I saw three months ago. But they're staying in the home of a man who longs for the bride-to-be -- so much so that he visits a witch doctor (Lugosi) to see if he can figure out how to make her "disappear" long enough that he can have her to himself, without interference from the groom. The witch doctor gives him a substance so potent that only a "pin prick" (Lugosi uses this phrase a couple times) will make her appear dead, only to revive later on. Of course, when she revives, she's a zombie -- you'd think this other suitor would have realized that when he visited the witch doctor's lair and saw a team of zombies working in assembly line on some kind of wooden machine with a large wooden wheel that makes it go.

It's this scene at the witch doctor's lair that features the first sound effect that really chilled me. It's the only sound in the soundtrack for a good minute, the grotesque squeaking of this wooden machine as it goes about its business. The zombies themselves are utterly silent.

A later effect really got me, too. A vulture factors significantly into the plot, yet the vulture doesn't make ordinary vulture noises, whatever they may be. It makes a noise that seems to be a blend of a bird squawking and a human screaming, and just thinking about it is making my flesh crawl as I type this.

But I don't intend this post to be a review of the merits of White Zombie, which were considerable for a movie made in 1932. Rather, what I really want to know is the effect it had on Robert Cummings, to cause him to name himself and his band after the movie.

And I'm ashamed to say that nothing is jumping out. For its time, I think the movie is quite an incredible achievement -- it's got some great camera setups, and even the beginnings of some legit special effects. But it's also of course dated in many ways, and it only hints at the kind of violence and gore that would become Zombie's trademark as a director. Alas, I've googled, and I can't immediately find any comments from the man himself that shed any further light on the subject. (Okay, I read the wikipedia pages for the band and the man, and scanned the first page of google results using only one pair of search words.)

Anyway, I'm glad I saw it. And having now seen two horror films from the 1930s that were more effective than I thought they had any chance of being, now I'm eager to delve a bit further.

No comments: