Reviewed by Patrick Cooper
The zombie thing is outta control. The genre has become so mainstream my mother references The Walking Dead. So let’s all knock it off, take a step back, and enjoy the classics. Like White Zombie, the 1932 pre-code zombie flick directed by filmmaking bros Victor and Edward Halperin. The film has grown mighty in stature over the years – some musician named Rob even named his band after the film – and now it’s getting a well-deserved Blu-ray treatment from Kino Classics.
White Zombie is widely considered to be the first feature length zombie movie ever made. Nearly four decades before Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, White Zombie depicted undead hordes onscreen doing dirt for a voodoo overlord. They weren’t there to eat brains or shuffle through graveyards though. They were mainly indentured workers chopping sugar cane for Bela Lugosi. Hey, it’s a living.
Young banker Neil Parker (John Harron) and his girl Madeleine (Madge Bellamy) are traveling through rural Haiti. They’re on their way to the home of Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), a wealthy plantation owner they met in NY that’s promised to wed them on the cheap. It’s the shadiest proposition ever: get hitched at my Haitian plantation and we’ll save you some money. But this moron Parker agrees to it. Turns out Beaumont has his eyes on Madeleine and he’s willing to bring Legendre – an infamous mesmerist – into the picture to ensure the bleach blonde damsel swings for him.
Lugosi, who had starred in some movie called Dracula the year before, plays the starry-eyed Legendre. We’re never let in on the whole picture regarding Legendre’s motives – all we now is that this guy loves sugar cane and pussy. He uses his voodoo powers to rope Madeleine in while Parker does his best to scrap against the hordes. It’s a pretty damn straightforward film, but very creepy and surreal at times.
There are a bunch of really cool superimposed shots of Lugosi’s dreamy eyes, his castle, Madeleine on the balcony, etc. Cinematographer Arthur Martinelli’s haunting black and white photography is remarkable for the era. The zombie makeup is great too, and their faces downright gave me the chills a couple times. Of course there are some undertones regarding slavery, which adds another level of empathy to the film. In the end, you’ll be rooting for the zombies. It’s a fun, eerie film and a must-see for horror fans interested in the genre’s history.
Kino-Lorber presents White Zombie in 1080p AVC in both a digitally enhanced and “raw” version. The enhanced version seriously suffers from the amount of digital noise reduction it underwent. Scratches and debris have been removed, but in the process all the fine detail is absent. Some close-up shots in particular look terribly soft, like a bad joke or something. Luckily the “raw” version is available. It’s got loads of imperfections, but looks sharper and more natural. I’d opt for that one for first time watchers.
The 2.0 mono is as imperfect as you would expect for an 80 year old horror film.
COMMENTARY BY FILM HISTORIAN FRANK THOMPSON: Mr. Thompson delivers an informative commentary track, loaded with information on the history of the zombie genre, the infamous production of the movie, and Lugosi’s career. It’s a short movie (67 minutes), so it’s definitely worth a second viewing with the commentary.
VINTAGE INTERVIEW WITH LUGOSI (7:00): This is a riot. It’s a staged interview around the time of White Zombie’s release. Lugosi discusses emigrating from his native Hungary and learning American slang (Bologna!). He really hams up the “mystery man” persona here. The young female interviewer pretends to be scared of him.
Official Score: 3.5/5