White Zombie
U.S.A. / 1932
Directed by Victor Halperin
Bela Lugosi
Madge Bellamy
James Cawthorn
B&W / 67 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R0 - NTSC)
Roan Group Archival Entertainment
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Remastered Blu-ray edition
(January 2013)
Review by
Brian Lindsey
10 = Highest
Over the years critics have either praised this film for its dreamlike atmosphere or slammed it as a ham-laden schlockfest. White Zombie is actually both laudable and laughable I like it either way. This was the very first zombie movie ever made, setting the "rules" for all such films to follow until the late 1960s, when George Romero established the post-modern pastiche of flesh-munching over voodoo sorcery.
    Haiti is the setting for director Victor Halperin's tale of zombies and all-consuming (not to mention overly melodramatic) obsession. Two young Americans, Neil (John Harron) and Madeleine (Madge Bellamy), are to be married and honeymoon on the island. The couple has accepted the generous offer of Monsieur Beaumont, a rich plantation owner, to hold the ceremony at his manor house. During a nighttime carriage ride to Beaumont's they encounter the mysterious Murder Legendre (Lugosi, in an indelible performance) and a group of his "workers"
zombie slaves under his complete control. Naturally, Neil and Madeleine scoff at their native coachman's claim that Legendre's workers are actually the walking dead.
    When they arrive at Beaumont's house they are met by Dr. Brunner (James Cawthorn), the long-time missionary on the island who is to perform the service. When their gracious host greets them it is readily apparent that Beaumont (Robert Frazer) covets Madeleine himself; he lusts after and is obsessed with her. Offering to hold the wedding on his estate was merely a pretext to lure the young woman into his orbit. Somehow, with the ceremony only an hour away, Beaumont must stop the marriage and get Neil out of the way. In desperation he turns to Murder Legendre (terrific name for a villain, n'est-ce pas?), the sugar mill owner whispered to be a practitioner of the black arts. In a memorable scene he visits Legendre's mill, where he sees firsthand that the workers that toil there are indeed zombies the living dead. Their master, the Mephistophelean Legendre, makes an offer the obsessed Beaumont cannot refuse...
White Zombie ultimately triumphs over its own self-inflicted injuries. Of course the film suffers from the staginess that afflicts all early '30s talkies, but much of this is allayed by its more prominent use of a musical score (something rarely done at that time) and the often fluid camera of cinematographer Arthur Martinelli, which is drawn to Bela's devilish gaze like the will of Legendre's hypnotized victims. Many of the black and white tableaus presented in the film are indeed dreamlike, almost ethereal. (One nicely-lensed moment is humorously ruined when Silver, Beaumont's loyal butler, is carried by the zombies to a torrential stream flowing by Legendre's castle. As the zombies throw Silver into the water to his doom, the screaming man holds his nose in preparation for the dunking!)
    It's admittedly strange to see misty breath emanating from characters who are supposed to be in tropical Haiti. And there's no getting around the fact that a lot of the acting in White Zombie is dreadfully overwrought  particularly Bellamy and Frazer or just plain bad (Cawthorn fumbles numerous lines). This isn't surprising considering the principal actors just mentioned were all silent movie stars. In a curious way it serves to demonstrate the contrast between "bad" ham (the performers cited above) and "good" ham: Lugosi, who sinks his teeth into the Legendre role with theatrical gusto, his own resonant charisma infusing the character with a sinister, hypnotic charm. Indeed, Lugosi's evil voodoo master is every bit as compelling a portrayal as his Count Dracula in the famous Universal film made a year earlier. This is Bela at the height of his talent and celebrity. Any Lugosi fan with a DVD player would be seriously remiss not to have this film in their collection.

Roan Group has compiled, from numerous sources, what looks like the best available print of White Zombie for the DVD. (Don't expect it to be flawless the movie is 70 years old, after all.) Picture is generally good, with sound being somewhat more troublesome. Still, combined with the sepia-toned reissue trailer (1952), two rare Lugosi interviews held 20 years apart, and author Gary Don Rhoades' informative (if at first somewhat halting) audio commentary, the disc is a solid presentation of this horror classic. 5/15/01

UPDATE On 29 January 2013 Kino is releasing a digitally remastered edition of White Zombie on both DVD and Blu-ray.