White Zombie is a small, poverty row film that was shot in 11 days for a mere $50,000 in 1932. Staring Bela Lugosi (in his first roll following the success of Dracula ,) it was the very first movie about zombies, and is now remembered as a classic.
The movie concerns two young lovers, Madeleine (Madge Bellamy) and Neil (John Harron) who have arrived on the island of Haiti to be married. Monsieur Beaumont (Robert Frazer) has offered to let them use his plantation for their wedding, but Beaumont has ulterior motives. He has fallen in love with Madeleine, and is hoping to steal her away. When that does not work, he turns to Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi.) Legendre is the owner of a sugar plantation, and voodoo master. Murder informs Beaumont that there is only one way to possess the fair Madeleine, and that is to turn her into a lifeless zombie. Aghast, Beaumont at first refuses to allow it, but the thought of his love marring another is too much for him, and he makes a bargain with Murder.
Coming at the beginning of the sound era, White Zombie has the look and feel of a silent picture. That's actually a good thing. When sound came to the movies, most directors filled their scenes with dialog, even when none was needed. White Zombie does not do that. There are many scenes where director Victor Halperin lets the atmosphere and action carry the scene, with little or no talking. The scene where Legendre carves Madeleine's image out of wax and then melts it is much enhanced because of it's lack of dialog. The sugar mill manned entirely with zombies is another eerie scene where little is spoken.
One thing that was lost from films in the early days of sound was camera movement. Used to great effect in silent pictures the advent of sound saw directors locking the camera down and shooting mostly medium and long shots. (They were afraid that the microphone would pick up the sound of the camera moving.) Halperin did not seem to fear that. In one scene where Neil is talking with a friend, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) the camera starts out stationary, then moves out and circles the entire room and ends up near where it started. Not just that shot, but all of the cinematography in this film is absolutely wonderful. Each shot is crafted to give the movie a spooky atmosphere. Shadows and close-ups are used as are super impositions and matte shots, creating many images the stay in you mind long after the film ends.
That is not to say the movie is perfect. The pacing is rather slow, with many scenes lasting longer than the ought to. It is has more melodrama than most horror movies, even those of the 30's. The acting on the whole is not of a high quality. Madge Bellamy acts like a zombie even before she is turned into one. She shows little emotion during any part of the film, and John Harron is never convincing as the groom. The picture is redeemed by the wonderful acting of Bela Lugosi. He really steals the picture as the evil Murder Legendre. His hand movements and facial expressions broadcast his evil intent perfectly. He is even better here than he was in Dracula. Lugosi's best performance of his career.
Since this movie is in the public domain, it has been widely available in VHS form but always in faded, scratchy prints with sub-par transfers. That being the case, I didn't have high expectations for this disc the first time I viewed it. I was pleasantly surprised. Roan has done a magnificent job with this DVD. The restoration of this film is very good, and makes the film look better than it has in years. Of course, the movie does not look pristine and new, after all, this film had been ignored for decades. But the print they used, and the clean up work that was done, have created a very nice looking image.
For the most part the picture is very clean, though there are patches where the film is scratched. The contrast is surprisingly good, though the whole film is slightly darker than I'd like. This could be the way it was filmed, to give the movie a claustrophobic atmosphere. It is not really noticeable in the indoor and day scenes, but it's hard to see details in the night scenes. Still a print that is easy to watch and well worth owning.
This movie is presented as it was shot with a single audio channel. There is a slight amount of hiss in the audio track, which is to be expected from a film of this age. There are occasional pops and cracks, but they are rare and not distracting. Overall a very good presentation for a film from the early 1930's.
Roan has included some great extras on this disc. First, there is a trailer from the 1952 re-release of the film. Then, there is a full length commentary provided by Gary Don Rhodes, the author of White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film. The commentary is insightful and for the most part interesting, even though many of the things he points out are fairly obvious, many are not. (Watch for the "dead" man holding his nose as he is thrown into a river.)
There is also a 1932 short Intimate Interviews. This is a scripted "interview" where a female reporter goes to Lugosi's house to talk to him, and ends up running away scared due to Lugosi's spooky nature. An entertaining novelty even if it doesn't provide any insight into Bela Lugosi.
The final extra is an excerpt from a 50's television show, or possibly a news segment Ship's Reporter. A reporter interviews Bela (a real interview this time!) as he arrives in New York after spending some time in England. The most interesting extra on the disc, this shows Bela after his star has faded, yet still hopeful of making a comeback.
Though rather slow at points, White Zombie is a good film. Bela Lugosi at his prime, more than makes up for the other actors, and the wonderful camera work and composition make this enjoyable to watch. Having this movie presented with a clean print is reason enough to buy this disc, but the extras make this DVD one that belongs in every classic horror collection.