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Default White Zombie




Reviewer: Jeremy
Review Date: March 23, 2001

Released by: The Roan Group
Release date: June 1, 1999
MSRP: $24.95
Region 1, NTSC
Windowboxed 1.37:1



The Story

inline ImageWhite Zombie opens on a dark road in the Caribbean nation of Haiti. As a carriage carrying Americans Neal (John Harron) and his fiancee Madeline (Madge Bellamy) comes around a turn, the driver makes a sudden stop. There's a funeral is going on - in the middle of the road! The driver explains that the locals are afraid of voodoo cults who steal dead bodies, so they make it a habit of burying their dead in the road where the constant traffic prevents people from digging them up. The carriage continues, but the driver isn't sure where he's going and stops to ask directions when he sees a man by the side of the road. The man (Bela Lugosi) simply stares into the carriage, virtually hypnotizing the two occupants. He reaches in and lays a hand on Madeline. Suddenly, the driver sees more men coming down the hill towards them and frantically drives off, but not before the mysterious gentleman steals Madeline's scarf.

inline Image After some panicked driving, the carriage finally reaches it's destination, the plantation of a man named Beaumont who had befriended Madeline on her way to Haiti, and who had offered to host their wedding. The driver apologizes for the rough ride and explains why he was so scared - the men he saw coming were zombies, re-animated dead men who might have been trying to add the three of them to their ranks. As the driver leaves, another gentlemen shows up at the house, Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), a physician and clergyman who has been working in Haiti as a missionary for decades. He has been summoned to conduct the wedding ceremonies, although he is a bit suspicious of why a man like Beaumont would be interested in helping the couple.

inline ImageAs it turns out, Beaumont (Robert Frazer) actually has very impure intentions. He has fallen in love with Madeline and is trying to find a way to get her away from Neal. Out of desperation, he has turned to a very sinister person for help. After the couple arrives, Beaumont takes a carriage to see him. The man is named, appropriately enough, Murder Legendre, and he's the same guy who stole Madeline's scarf. Like Beaumont, Legendre is also a plantation owner, but his is very successful, mainly because he doesn't need to pay his workers - they're all zombies! A practicer of the dark arts, Legendre shows him the scarf and offers to use his skills to help Beaumont for a price. Beaumont is reluctant, but he lusts for Madeline so much that he accepts Legendre's help. The man gives him a white powder to give her - only a little bit will do the trick.

inline ImageThe wedding ceremony commences as planned, and as Beaumont walks Madeline down the aisle, he tries to convince her not to marry Neal and go off with him. She stoutly refuses. Realizing that he has no other choice, Neal then gives her a rose sprinkled with Legendre's powder, which she sniffs. The ceremony then takes place. Meanwhile, outside, Legendre shows up and begins carving a voodoo doll out of a candle. He then wraps it in Madeline's scarf and holds it over a flame. Inside, as the newlyweds make a toast, Madeline suddenly sees a vision of Legendre's face in her glass and she promptly drops dead.

inline ImageNeal is absolutely devastated and sinks into a terrible twilight world of depression. He begins having hallucinations and strange dreams. Meanwhile, Legendre and Beaumont steal Madeline's body from her tomb. Legendre resurrects her, but Beaumont quickly realizes the full scope of what he's done - Madeline is just like the other zombies, no life, no personality, just a slave following instructions. His misery only increases when Legendre begins to turn him into a zombie as well as part of their "bargain". Meanwhile, Neal discovers that someone has stolen Madeline's body, and he goes to Dr. Bruner for help. After explaining to Neal some of the superstitions and folklore of Haiti, the two set out on a quest to find out what truly happened to Madeline.

inline Image As a movie, White Zombie at times seems creaky and quite dated, but at other times atmospheric and quite impressive to behold. Being made in 1932, it was one of the earliest horror movies shot in sound, and it doesn't always escape the static feeling of many of the early talkies. Although director Victor Halperin and cinematographer Arthur Martinelli try to keep the film moving and visually interesting at all times, many scenes still seem ponderous and dull, mostly due to the fact that many of the principal actors just aren't very talented. In particular, Neal, the "hero" of the film played by John Harron, is so weak and whiny that you soon start to wish that he would either shut up or be knocked off by one of Legendre's zombies. However, when the film isn't busy with dialogue, when nobody is running their mouth, it become a much different story. White Zombie contains some of the most memorable horror imagery of the 1930's - the images of Legendre carving his voodoo dolls, of his zombies silently working in his sugar mill, the raven that is an almost constant fixture around him, the burial in the middle of the road, and many others, all do a spectacular job of reinforcing the constant atmosphere of death and the macabre that the story evokes.

Of course, even with the imagery, the movie would probably still be difficult to sit through if it wasn't for Bela Lugosi's presence. One of the reasons that Lugosi succeeds is that, instead of playing his character as a straight bogeyman, Lugosi adds multiple dimensions to the evil nature of Legendre. There are times when he projects straight menace, while at others he evokes the idea of a sly and treacherous bargainmaker, as if Beaumont's agreement with him is no different than if he had gone to the devil himself. And then at other times, Legendre can be a blackly humorous character who gets more amusement out of his deeds than anything else ("It is unfortunate that you are no longer able to speak - I should be interested to hear you describe your symptoms!" he quips as the zombie-making process slowly destroys Beaumont's mind). Another factor that greatly aids the Hungarian-born Lugosi is his foreigness. Lugosi's thick accent and distinct European flair, as well as his frequent refusal to learn proper English, are often blamed for some of his career problems, although here they add to the mystery of the character - Legendre seems so out of place that it's easy for the audience to believe that he might not be part of the living world.

White Zombie is also an excellent way to look at how the zombie film originally got it's start. Although you might be able to see zombie-like beings in earlier films, this movie was the first to present the conventional walking dead and use the word "zombie". The idea of the cinematic zombie has evolved incredibly since then. Films from the 1930's and 40's like King of the Zombies, Revenge of the Zombies and this one, depicted zombies fairly close to what might be seen in real life, where the creatures are actually people who have been drugged into submission. In movies like this, the zombies were menaces, but weren't the villains, a role reserved for human characters like Legendre who manipulated the undead for their own evil purposes. Zombies began to change in appearance and behavior with 50's movies like Zombies of Mora Tau and Invisible Invaders, and then took a gigantic step with Night of the Living Dead, and another one with movies like Dawn of the Dead and Zombie, where the living dead have wills of their own and are completely out-of-control. What a difference seventy years makes.

White Zombie is definitely a movie that all horror fans should see. Yes, it can be creaky at times, and yes, can seem dated. But it's also an excellent example of atmospheric horror and menace, as well as an excellent chance to see Bela Lugosi, a true master, at the top of his game. Go check it out now.

Image Quality

inline Image This release of White Zombie is the highly-acclaimed restoration of the film done by the Roan Group, and they should give themselves a big pat on the back for this effort. For a low-budget film made so long ago, it looks spectacular. The movie is presented windowboxed (black bars on all sides, although in this case it's not very noticeable on most TVs) in it's original 1.37:1 ratio. Blacks are deep and true, and the elements are free of any significant print damage. The transfer is much clearer and reveals a lot more detail than any previous version of the film, many of which looked like they'd been dredged out of a river. There are some minor problems with the transfer, although they are perfectly understandable considering it's age. There is some noticeable haze, some splices, some light grain, some minor scratches and some occasional speckling evident, as well as a number of vertical lines. Some shots look a little too dark, but these could very well be a fault in the original photography.

Sound

Unfortunately, the soundtrack is much more problematic than the video, although it's still better than earlier versions. Presented in Dolby 1.0 Mono, it was obviously culled from several different sources. At some times the dialogue seems too low, while at other times it sounds flat and hollow. There is frequent background noise, which also interferes with your ability to hear the dialogue. Regrettably, no subtitles are provided.

Supplemental Material

Roan has provided a very good commentary track with Lugosi scholar Gary Don Rhodes. He offers a n excellent breakdown of the movie scene-by-scene, analyzing the various cinematic techniques and subtexts, the movie's varied literary inspirations, events in the early 20th century that would have influenced the way people reacted to the movie, and of course, a good amount of background information on the cast and crew.

The disc includes three other supplements, two of which get extra credit for having even survived. The first is a (partly staged) interview with Lugosi at his home in 1932 for a series called "Intimate Interviews". The second is another interview, this time from 1951 on the Ship's Reporter television program where an aged but energetic Bela talks about his newest film, Vampire Over London/Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. Both segments are in pretty rough shape, but are still watchable. Lastly, there's a re-issue trailer for White Zombie from 1952.

Final Thoughts

There is no better opportunity to see White Zombie than on this DVD. It's a classic film, and the Roan Group has done an excellent job. It's doubtful the movie will ever look any better than it does here, and there's plenty of interest in the extras department as well. This is definitely a disc you should pick up.

Rating

Movie - A-
Image Quality - B+
Sound - C
Supplements - A-

Technical Info.
  • Running Time - 1 hour 7 minutes
  • B&W
  • Not Rated
  • 1 Disc
  • 17 Chapter Stops
  • Dolby Digital Mono 1.0
Supplements
  • Commentary by Lugosi scholar Gary Don Rhodes
  • 1932 "Intimate Interviews" segment with Lugosi
  • 1951 "Ship's Reporter" interview with Lugosi
  • Re-issue trailer

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