Judge Patrick Naugle cannot tolerate racism, even in zombie culture.
She was not alive…nor dead…
When Neil Parker (John Harron, The Cowboy Quarterback) and his fiancée Madeleine (Madge Bellamy, Charlie Chan in London) travel through impoverished Haiti, they stumble across the path of "Murder" Legendre (Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula), a mysterious resident who has hypnotized a group of citizens to run his sugarcane factory. Neil and Madeleine are staying at the home of Monsieur Beaumont, who has invited the twosome to be married at his estate. However, Beaumont is secretly in love with Madeleine and will stop at nothing to make her his. When Parker's bethrothed is seemingly killed, he becomes a drunken mess. But death is only the beginning, as Madeleine returns from the grave under Legendre's command…and the worst is yet to come!
While George A. Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead is considered the granddaddy of the zombie genre, it's the Bela Lugosi cheapie White Zombie that offered a glimpse at the future of the undead. Zombies have become not only popular but truly mainstream. With the arrival of AMC's The Walking Dead, it seems like zombies are the monster du jour, hopefully eclipsing all those terrible Twilight glittery vampires. I've never hidden the fact I'm a big fan of horror, especially zombie movies. Dawn of the Dead, Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead…there are some pretty great genre flicks peppering the landscape. While I wouldn't consider 1932's White Zombie a great horror movie by any stretch of the imagination, it does offer a suitably creepy performance by Lugosi and some haunting visuals that make it worth seeing at least once.
Those going into White Zombie hoping for gut munching fun, be warned: these Haitian voodoo zombies are nothing like the shuffling, shambling corpses we've come to know and love. This version of the living dead are more or less hypnotized bodies that, while eerie, aren't very scary at all. With hollowed out eyes and blank stares, their job is not to eat brains, but do the bidding of their master. In fact, the zombies are almost peripheral when you look at how much screen time they get. These guys mostly shamble around, carry a coffin, open doors with a menacing gaze, and that's the extent of Legendre's use for them.
Clocking in at a little over an hour, White Zombie's plot isn't anything to write home about, but what the film lacks in narrative it makes up for in goose bump inducing atmospherics. There are some truly unsettling moments, many supplied by Lugosi's presence; the actor's piercing gaze and devilish goatee are a special effect unto themselves. The legendary actor is given the role of the heavy here, though the character isn't on par with his iconic Count Dracula. Legendre is all weird facial hair and crazy eyes, making for a sort of sub-par (but effective) bloodsucking substitute. The other performances range from mediocre (the zombie extras) to pretty bad (neither Harron nor Bellamy are very effective). Director Victor Halperin, who also helmed the 1936 sequel Revolt of the Zombies, shows a modicum of skill when it comes to atmosphere but flounders when saddled with the burden of dialogue and plot.
Presented in 1.33:1/1080p high definition black and white, there are two versions of the film included here. The first is the "raw" version which features a lot of grain and defects but presents the film as it was originally intended, warts and all. Although the image is certainly not great, it looks very good for being 80+ years old! The second version features a digitally enhanced almost laughable transfer in how artificial it looks. Many of the scenes look like they've been painted over with a digital brush, making them a lot less appealing to those who know and appreciate the Blu-ray format. My suggestion is to stick with the original. The soundtrack is a very spotty decades old LPCM 2.0 mix…and it shows. There are moments when the volume cranks up, then suddenly drops out without warning. Sometimes clear, sometimes muddy, and often difficult to understand, Kino's lack of any subtitles is a bit baffling.
Bonus features include an informative audio commentary from film scholar Frank Thompson, a brief six minute archival (see: staged) interview with star Bela Lugosi, and a trailer for the film's 1951 re-release.
White Zombie's historical context is what makes the film worth watching, because its low budget production values offer little in the way of viewing pleasure. The cool thing is you can see the seeds of what would eventually become a genre unto itself, and where Romero got his inspiration.
A flawed but interesting road map to the rise of the zombie movie.
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