Plunged into unexpected darkness, a suitably horrific mood was set for the crowd in the Great Hall, as the looming screen flickered to life with a montage of classy menace from Hungary’s finest export, Bela Lugosi.
Set to Nouvelle Vague’s chilling cover of 1979’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead, the sheer heft of the man’s performance as cinema’s most iconic Dracula seethed through. All slicked jet-black-hair and piecing gaze, Lugosi broke the mold with minimal makeup and his own thick accent to create what remains to this day a definitive vision of the Count.
With yet another sold out crowd primed to receive a slice of guerilla-screened horror, author Mark Iveson delivered a fascinating pre-film talk about the surprisingly heartbreaking life of Lugosi. With the actor enduring lengthy spells of unemployment, a crippling addiction to morphine, and ending up near-forgotten during his final years, the scene was set to see the tragic icon in the very first feature-length zombie film.
White Zombie sees Lugosi on fine form as a Haitian voodoo master
Released a scant year after 1931’s Dracula, White Zombie sees Lugosi on fine form as a Haitian voodoo master, using his diabolical powers to transform a nubile young woman into a zombie on her wedding night, snatching her from her bereft new husband, and delivering her into the hands of the obsessed plantation owner who orchestrated the whole sinister plot.
With a reputation for haphazard acting and a histrionic storyline, it was a pleasant surprise to be barrelled along by its knockabout charm, and even horrified by a couple of deeply disturbing scenes.
The dead-eyed zombie bride playing a repeated refrain over and over on a grand piano, as her new master curses that he thought her beauty alone would satisfy, but the soul has gone, can’t help but chill; nor can the plantation owner himself being slowly transformed into a zombie, rendered mute and completely aware of what is happening to him as a horrifying Lugosi sits casually by, offering up charming conversation and slowly carving out a voodoo doll ready for the man’s final turn.
a man who gave cinema so much, now gone but assuredly not forgotten
While it’s natural sitting in the cold heart of the castle to pine for a heater and a draught excluder, it really is part of the atmosphere of these screenings which offer an entirely unique way to experience horror classics of years gone by, and, in this case, reaffirm the reputation of a man who gave cinema so much, now gone but assuredly not forgotten.
Leigh Venus at Newcastle Castle, 13 February 2016
Originally published in Narc Magazine