Studio:Kino Year: 1932 Cast: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Robert Frazer, John Harron, Joseph Cawthorn, Brandon Hurst, George Burr MacAnnan, Clarence Muse
Director: Victor Halperin Release Date: January 29, 2013 Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable) Run Time: 01h:08m:00s Genre(s): horror
Kino may have committed a huge miscue with the rather grotesque digitally restored transfer offered here, but the film remains a classic in its own right. The superb commentary track from film historian Frank Thompson and the unrestored 'raw' print are reason enough to pick this up. Recommended (but certainly NOT for the primary transfer).
Movie Grade: B+
DVD Grade: B
In the pantheon of zombie films this is cited as the one where American audiences first heard the z-word uttered onscreen, in this case early on by Clarence Muse as a jittery coach driver. Any fan of the undead should really be aware of that, because from an historical perspective White Zombie is the film that unlocked the door for an entire sub-genre of film horror to come. This independently produced project, made in 1932 by Victor and Edward Halperin, is also notable for a lead role from a post-1931 Dracula Bela Lugosi as the mysterious Legendre, an evil character with who has harnessed the ability to resurrect the dead to "work the sugar mills and fields at night" in Haiti.
The heart of White Zombie is an unrequited love story gone horribly wrong, as Haitian plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) takes a fancy to doe-eyed Madeline (Madge Bellamy), despite the fact she is about to be married to Neal Parker (John Harron). Beaumont makes a deal with the devil to win the hand of Madeline, but in this instance the devil is Lugosi's Legendre and his all-powerful zombie potion. It gives the effect of killing Madeline, but when Beaumont retrieves her from her crypt she is not the same joyful woman he initially desired, instead she has a blank visage and "empty, staring eyes". But that's only part of Beaumont's problems because Legendre has other plans, while shell-shocked Neal (believing his beloved is dead) pairs up with kindly Dr.Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) to somehow uncover the truth.
Without question much credit must go to director Victor Halperin for the way White Zombie is constructed, filled with subtle camera movement and beautiful shadows (though much of the impact of that has been mangled by the overly DNR'd transfer). Take note of a scene between Neal and Dr.Bruner - consider it the obligatory expository dialogue sequence that explains zombie basics. It begins as a shot of a seated Bruner framed in the space between Neal's arm and body, who is standing in the foreground leaning on a desk. Halperin moves the camera slowly to create a full body two-shot, as the actors also move around the room speaking to one another, creating a long single take sequence - complete with a dialogue stumble from Joseph Cawthorn - that visually ends just as it began. It's a complicated shot presented unobtrusively, and it shows a director pushing himself creatively.
What makes White Zombie such a forward-thinking film - especially for 1932 - is the way it treats the subject material, presenting Haitian myths and zombie lore with a level of frankness and honesty that lend the story a wonderfully creepy heft. We don't have to know what is in Legendre's zombie potion because the Halperins have immersed viewers in some of the unknown corners of Haitian culture, introducing concepts that at the time must have been even incredibly disturbing to audiences. As Neal and Dr. Bruner inch closer to revelations about zombies we too are learning, and while many elements of White Zombie are understandably dated there remains an unmistakable and eerie undertone to the entire film.
Sometimes the best of intentions can go horribly awry, and that's the case with the new digitally restored version presented here. It may have been culled from a 35mm fine grain master (and in a few instances a 16mm print), but the technical process of the actual restoration has rendered the finished product an overly enhanced mess, one that has been subjected to such extreme and unnatural levels of noise reduction that any sense of detail or film grain has been completely scrubbed away. Sure, the new print is clean - in terms of removal of age-related damage - but at a far greater cost where image quality is concerned. Edges are horrifically soft, almost as if looking through a gauze veil at times, and it dilutes the use of shadow to confounding levels of blandness. Kino's inclusion of a "raw" unrestored print as an extra (see below) is something of a saving grace.
Things aren't so grim on the audio side, with a serviceable uncompressed PCM 2.0 mono track delivering generally clear dialogue, though an abundance of age-related hiss remains unavoidable. The absence of a subtitle track - a curious omission, to say the least - is regrettable and would have come in handy a few times.
Supplemental material begins with a commentary track from film historian Frank Thompson. It's clear Thompson knows the subject well, and the content is consistently informative without being dry. His presentation is amicable and there's a wealth of production background and discussion of the film's place in zombie-file history. I came away from this track with an even deeper appreciation of White Zombie, and that occurs so rarely with most commentaries that it deserves mentioning. Well done, Frank!
Also included - and certainly as worthwhile as the commentary - is the White Zombie (Raw) version, which is essentially an unenhanced transfer mastered from the same 35mm negative used for the featured restored version. This full-length cut has some age-related print damage but there is a definite sense that this is the way the film should look, with deeper blacks and an excellent sense of contrast balance. I'm glad Kino has included this version of White Zombie here, I'm just disheartened that it is considered an "extra".
The remaining extras include a campy Bela Lugosi Interview (06m:51s) that was an installment of the Intimate Interviews series hosted by Dorothy West, a gallery of publicity stills (black-and-white and color-tinted) and a White Zombie theatrical trailer from its 1951 re-issue.