Blu-ray review: ‘White Zombie’ (1932)

Posted by John Gholson - January 28th 2013 @ 9:00 am

whitezombie

I assume that anyone reading a White Zombie Blu-ray review in 2013 is asking themselves one question, whether they’ve seen the film or not, “is White Zombie worth owning on Blu-ray?” The scrappy film has survived the ages through public domain proliferation and for providing the name for the band that made Rob Zombie famous. It has almost never looked or sounded good in the years since its release, so the job falls to Kino Classics to make White Zombie a relevant purchase when you could just as easily nab a crappy DVD version for a few bucks or stream it on YouTube for free.

Well, of course Kino Classics has made this something worth owning, because they’re Kino and they take pride in their restorations. This is the best version of White Zombie that money can buy. That said, it’s not a flawless experience. It doesn’t come close to the jaw-dropping transfers on the Universal Monsters Blu-ray collection, but White Zombie has never had a studio looking after it with care like the Universal Monsters have. The Zombie transfer is very obviously digitally smoothed-out, a tad smudgy for lack of a better descriptor, but at least it’s clean and the black and white contrast is nice. There’s an untouched version on the Blu as well for purists who recoil against too-visible DNR. The audio hisses like a cat from beginning to end, so I don’t envy the guys who had to try to clean that mess up. It’s serviceable; I mean, I could hear it.

For the uninitiated, White Zombie is the first zombie movie ever made – a dark, melodramatic tale of lovers brought low by the voodoo powers of Bela Lugosi’s manipulative Murder Legendre. Legendre uses his abilities to create zombie plantation workers for Charles Beaumont, a man hosting visiting newlyweds, Neil and Madeleine, in the Haitian city of Port-au-Prince. Beaumont wants Madeleine as his own and is even willing to have her as an undead slave, something Legendre can certainly provide for him. This doesn’t come without a price, of course, and the more Beaumont considers the horror of what he’s done, the more Legendre is able to psychologically lord control over him (and Madeleine).

Lugosi is sublime as Legendre, and if you’re a fan of the look of Universal’s films, then there’s a lot to love in White Zombie. Images of googly-eyed shuffling zombies, run-down coastal castles, and ornate interior sets make White Zombie look like one of that studio’s best on the surface (and it was shot on the Universal lot, so that may very well be why it looks like a classic). Beyond the visuals and Lugosi, the film is only a minor success, with a wimpy “love conquers all” resolution that you can see coming from the very moment Madeleine is cursed. I think the best thing about the film is the complicated relationship between Legendre and Beaumont; both obvious villains, but one more Satanic and one more susceptible to human emotions, and I wish there was more of it than what the film provides.

Special features include a feature-length commentary by historian Frank Thompson, and a charming staged interview with Lugosi. This odd little curio is basically a scripted short film in which the interviewer and Lugosi are forced to behave as if they’re being candid, from an obvious script. It’s pretty dumb, but I smiled through the whole thing, and if you’re a Lugosi fan, it almost justifies the price of the whole Blu.

Overall Rating: B-

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  1. Kovik
    February 7th, 2013 | 9:29 am | #1

    I feel the story and character development in WHITE ZOMBIE is appropriate in the classical narrative style of the era, and kept within the limits of the film’s brief running time.

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