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VCI's Blu-ray of the 1932 horror classic White Zombie follows up on an unfortunate January 2013 disc sourced from Holland Releasing, which overloaded a poor print of the film with so much digital "improvement" that it is nigh unwatchable. While no perfect prints of Victor Halperin's influential shocker appear to have survived, this VCI release is a marvelous improvement. More on picture quality below.
The picture's main appeal has always been Bela Lugosi, who was of course fresh off his star-making breakthrough in the previous year's smash success 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 own wedding ceremony. Confirmed as dead, she is placed in the Beaumont crypt. The melancholy Neil drinks himself into a stupor, while Beaumont watches Legendre's zombie retainers spirit Madeleine's body off to an eerie cliff-top castle. But Murder Legendre also lusts after the zombified Madeleine, and uses the same methods 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. A few scenes have a dream-like quality, without the sense of abstract disconnection in a truly oneiric classic like Carl Dreyer's 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.
If one wanted to, it would be possible to downplay the film's supernatural aspect with the knowledge 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 directs 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 full bandwidth 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 the most original and memorable scene in the show.
Lugosi naturally dominates every frame 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 bee-stung lips remind us somewhat of horror heroine drawings by Tim Burton. Ms. Bellamy's 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 even when still 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 dramatic 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. Among Bela Lugosi fans, it's a top collectors' title.
VCI's Blu-ray of White Zombie is a revisit of Cary Roan's film materials, which were the basis for a (then) very good DVD from around fifteen years ago. Mr. Roan is reportedly in possession of a B&W fine grain 35mm with very little damage.
Note 5.14.14: VCI has reported they are replacing the White Zombie discs with a pressing with a higher bit rate. It doesn't change my review -- even the 'light' transfer looks great. But I would imagine that the mottling I see in the blacks will improve on the replacement discs.
The Blu-ray encoding does not hit the raw transfer hard with digital tools. The image is light but reveals a healthy grayscale, finally giving us a clear look at the Howard Anderson's ambitious special effects and mattes -- we can even see small imperfections in the glass matte used in the main room of Legendre's clifftop castle.
Some dark shots show density fluctuation in the blacks (This is what might improve with the higher bit rate). Hairline scratches are present and the image rides a tiny bit "in the gate" but overall we're given a true film experience with a 35mm feel... not some PD eyesore squashed and tortured with an overzealous use of 'restoration' tools. If one threw $200,000 worth of Lowry-style digital fixes, one could fine tune White Zombie to perfection, smoothing out contrast flutter and stabilizing the image 100% without compromising picture quality. But only pictures with the best commercial prospects get that kind of attention. This rendition of White Zombie is the one to get.
The expected extras are a vintage trailer for Dracula and a trailer for White Zombie that's called a reissue trailer but has a very strange audio track. A still gallery is also included. Author Gary Don Rhodes wrote and directed a video biography of Bela Lugosi in 1997, and here provides a full commentary track.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
White Zombie Blu-ray
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.