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Until fairly recently horror film fans didn't have access to good copies of some of the genre's noted classics of the early 1930s. Before DVD, the prints on view for titles like Vampyr, Doctor X, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Island of Lost Souls, The Most Dangerous Game, The Ghoul and even King Kong were often available only in versions compromised by poor picture or sound, or missing scenes. One neglected title very much in need of restoration is the 1932 White Zombie, an independent production rightfully described as an underground classic. Edward and Victor Halperin's picture was picked up by United Artists and distributed as a mainstream attraction through several reissues. An earlier DVD release had a fairly audible soundtrack and a nearly intact picture, yet also a lot of room for improvement. So when Kino announced a restored Blu-ray late in 2012, interest among horror fans took off.
The picture's main appeal is Bela Lugosi, who became an instant star with the success of the previous year's Dracula. White Zombie is one of Lugosi's more effective leading roles. The character he plays certainly has an original name: Murder Legendre.
This tale of the occult takes place on the Caribbean nation of Haiti. It introduced American viewers to notions about voodoo worship and rumors of corpses revived by black magic. Eager to be married, Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron) arrive in Port-au-Prince. They've accepted the invitation of planter Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) to have the ceremony performed at his stately mansion in the sugar cane region. But Beaumont has become obsessed with Madeleine and wants her for his own. He turns to the mysterious Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi), a necromancer rumored to have mastered a voodoo secret that turns men into zombies. Beaumont sees how Legendre has created a zombie workforce for a sugar mill. Madeleine collapses at her wedding, is confirmed as dead and placed in the Beaumont crypt. The melancholy Neil drinks himself into a stupor, while Beaumont watches Legendre's zombie retainers carry Madeleine off to an eerie cliff-top castle. But Murder Legendre also lusts after the zombified Madeleine, and uses the same method to render Beaumont helpless. With the help of Dr. Bruner, a minister (Joseph Cawthorn), Neil climbs to the castle in the hope of setting Madeleine free.
White Zombie plays out at a funereal pace, but a bit faster than Carl Dreyer's dreamlike early talkie Vampyr. Filmed on leased sets on the Universal lot, the Halperins give the show good production values. These include a number of impressive matte paintings that make Legendre's fantastic castle seem like something drawn by Gustave Doré. The special effects people manage several artistic superimpositions, including huge close-ups of Lugosi's eyes that resemble shots from Dracula. The zombie lore is simplified. We see Madeleine's coach held up by a burial taking place in the middle of the road -- Legendre is apparently snatching so many bodies for use as zombie workers that a road is the only place where a grave might go undisturbed.
Some critics downplay the film's supernatural aspect, saying that documented zombies were in fact unfortunate men made pliable to the will of the 'zombie master' by the use of drugs. Legendre does use a special drug, a secret he tortured from a black zombie master, now himself one of Legendre's mindless slaves. But Legendre remotely direct his victims with a sort of hocus-pocus hypnosis-mind control, using carved wax figurines, Madeleine's scarf, etc., as well. When Legendre directs his entire 'zombie posse' at the same time, he must be generating a heavy traffic of mental signals. White Zombie was the first voodoo zombie picture in a small field of quality entries that includes Val Lewton & Jacques Tourneur's superb I Walked with a Zombie and Wes Craven's genuinely unnerving The Serpent and the Rainbow.
White Zombie is a talkie but its best content plays like a silent movie. A couple of Legendre's personal zombies have rather scary faces, especially one wide-eyed galoot that showed up frequently in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (pictured above). Except for the witch doctor, Legendre's retainers are all white, whereas the zombie cane workers are all black. We see long lines of sad or blank-faced workers plodding along like weary robots, silently dumping their baskets of cane into the grinder. The whole sequence is overlaid with the groans of the wooden mill mechanism, a sound-scape that reminds us of the industrial atmospheres in David Lynch movies. When one worker falls into the grinder, he makes no sound and nobody takes notice -- the zombie labor continues unhindered. It's easily the most successful scene in the show.
Lugosi naturally dominates every scene he is in. He strikes domineering poses and makes an odd grip-gesture with his hands to indicate the flexing of his hypnotic powers. Legendre's many 'uncanny' close-ups give us plenty of time to observe his oddly combed eyebrows and moustache. Madge Bellamy is a classic haunted femme victim, wandering halls and staircases with perfect poise, in a wedding dress that looks like a burial shroud. Her casting is suitable enough, but the script doesn't draw enough contrast between her pre- and post- zombie state... she does her share of blank staring when 'normal'. Madeleine also plays the grand piano while a zombie, which would seem to be inconsistent with that condition. Joseph Cawthorne's Van Helsing substitute is awkwardly made to carry light comic relief duties. Hardly a Peter Cushing type, he nevertheless joins the action with a well-timed shove and a konk to the head.
The male leads are not at all well directed. John Harron is such a defeatist loser that we don't really feel for his plight. Robert Frazer's rich landowner is also unlikeable. The acting in both roles is weak, and Frazer's looks keep reminding us of Liberace. White Zombie is not a place to look for acting finesse.
Although Victor Halperin's direction is on the stiff side, he has a good visual eye. Almost every setup outside the dialogue scenes is visually interesting. Those matte paintings mesh well with the live-action content. The castle viewed from the beach seems impossibly tall. An angle on the castle's stone patio shows a background of distant ocean waves, far below. Halperin frames shots through foreground objects, as with several staircase views seen through an opening in a stone balustrade shaped like a fleur-de-lis, that matches a pattern in Madeleine's dress.
Audiences in 1932 were probably petrified by White Zombie's creepy atmosphere, even if they didn't know what to make of its image of Haiti as a place where slavery has returned in the form of an occult curse. Future zombie movies, including Halperin's Revolt of the Zombies would likewise revive corpses for use as free labor or 'unkillable' soldiers. The movie uses some authentic-sounding voodoo music and Clarence Muse is a coach driver who explains the road burial business, but besides the isolated vision of the "sugar mill of the living dead", the movie steers away from race issues. White Zombie is more a spooky fantasy than a realistic portrayal of voodoo practices. Artistically, it isn't in the same league as Dreyer's Vampyr yet it occasionally generates similar nightmarish sensations.
Unfortunately, the new 'Restored' Blu-ray of White Zombie is a disappointment. Kino Classics has licensed the title from an outfit called Holland Releasing, which has chosen an unusual presentation. The Extras menu choice offers what is called a "Raw" film transfer of their 35mm source material, which has had nothing done to it at all. This encoding has a surplus of white speckling and exaggerated grain, not to mention unsteady splices and a few missing frames. The soundtrack is fairly clear, but there are numerous dropouts. Normally, a transfer like this wouldn't be considered ready for distribution on disc, not even as an extra.
Holland's 'main feature' presentation gives White Zombie a severe digital stomping. Automated restoration tools have not been used in a judicious way. Speckles are gone and the image stabilized, but the visual quality of every shot has effectively been wrecked. The problem goes beyond a slight waxy quality and a lack of natural granularity. Contrast is so blown out that most of the detail is wiped away from bright objects, such as Madeleine's dress. "New" textures appear in just about everything. The effect is so heavy that action frames don't properly refresh. Effects with smooth edges now chatter as they move across the screen. Most every smooth gradient in the image is now a harder transition.
The film's effects shots are the hardest-hit material. Some of the matte paintings had a charcoal drawing-like texture, which has been replaced with smeary blobs that look like dripping paint. The live action parts of matte scenes no longer remotely match the painted areas. In that cliff-top matte view, the background ocean waves have been all but obliterated.
We compared a dialogue scene in both versions. In the raw transfer the end of a scene between Neil and the Doctor is garbled, with a lot of missing frames. It looks like some additional repair was done to the
Even with the improved stability, this 'restored' disc looks worse than the very first trial DVDs we saw back in 1997. I have to say that it may very have been done with consumer-level digital tools. The text on the packaging implies that the only presentation choice was between the raw scan and the overcooked restoration, when it's obvious that what's wanted is something much closer to the "raw", with alterations and repairs chosen with a little finesse.
Although the grain is sometimes very distracting, and the transfer has difficulties whenever director Halperin employs soft or purposely out-of-focus shots, the "raw" version is the one to watch, flaws and all.
Holland Releasing includes three extras. A 1951 trailer demonstrates how the picture was promoted in one of its exploitation reissues. The short subject Intimate Interviews is an interesting faux-impromptu afternoon with Bela in his back yard. Although he's a charming guy, his accent and halting speech make it obvious why he might not be considered for a wide range of roles. Finally, author and filmmaker Frank Thompson offers a relaxed and friendly commentary. Viewers unfamiliar with the film will learn basic information about its making. Thompson also relates the stories of the actors, several of whom were regular silent players having career difficulties with the onset of talkies.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
White ZombieBlu-ray rates:
Another review of White Zombie that I recommend, with a different appraisal of the picture quality: Nathaniel Thompson's Mondo Digital.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.