A young man turns to a witch doctor to lure the woman he loves away from her fiance, but instead turns her into a zombie slave.
A little kooky, quite peculiar, and very over-the-top, 'White Zombie' is nonetheless a beloved cult classic of horror cinema, ranking as one of those "so-bad-it's-good" types of early independent B-movie filmmaking. What it lacks in scares and spooks, it more than makes up for in eccentricity, its creepily atmospheric style, and its uniqueness for being the first motion picture to feature the zombie as a central plot device. Several characters even mention the brutish, machine-like men which haunt the jungles of Haiti as the living dead. Only here, they're not the rotting corpses with a hankering for human flesh, as invented by George Romero's nightmares. No. There's something a bit more sly and sinister in this production from the Halperin brothers.
From a screenplay by Garnett Weston, who also penned 'Supernatural' and 'Daughter of Shanghai,' the story uses the more traditional zombie of voodoo mysticism to explore the unconscious fear of the body. Inspired by the largely-forgotten and likely-lost Kenneth Webb play, with information borrowed from American occultist W.B. Seabrook's The Magic Island, the mindless, reanimated dead in this film are seen more as docile slaves. They are a collective workforce that never tires and unquestionably obeys the devious demands of their master, Murder Legendre (played with wonderfully hilarious exaggeration by legendary screen-presence Béla Lugosi). If his name isn't a giveaway to his villainy, then his devil-like moustache and goatee surely is.
In spite of his hair-raising looks, including his crazed hypnotic stare that seems to reach deep into your soul, Legendre is a respected white Haitian who's made his fortune on the labor of his enslaved dead. On the particular night in which our story is set, the man has a mysterious meeting with his next door neighbor, plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). He's madly in love with the young and beautiful Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy, leading lady of the silent era but whose career was already fading by this point), and he'd do anything to steal her away from her fiancé Neil Parker (John Harron). Beaumont had invited the pair to wed and spend their honeymoon on his estate, but of course, he has other, more dastardly plans in place for the happy newlyweds.
As unabashedly melodramatic as that may sound — which frankly is in perfect tune with your typical B-movie of this era — Weston's script is suggestive of some very provocative and rather inflammatory themes on the fear of white enslavement. This goes beyond the fact that Legendre's slaves, those he keeps closest to him, are actually white. There seems to be a genuine fear within the narrative about having one's individuality and free will replaced with a desire to obey. It's not as much about being brought back from the dead as about blindly following the commands of another. The horror of this thought reaches its apex when Madeleine is turned into zombie. But even more telling is the fact that three men fight over her like an object in need of subjugation. For me, it's just another reason to enjoy the film for more than bad filmmaking.
Indeed, 'White Zombie' comes with some very amusing camera techniques, which demonstrate that its director, Victor Halperin, and producer, Edward Halperin, also thought of their little horror film as more than its histrionic plot. With impressive cinematography by Arthur Martinelli, Halperin proves to be quite the creative filmmaker, using methods from the silent era to express emotion rather than dialogue. Images of Madeleine are overlaid during a bar sequence, conveying Neil's sorrow while in a drunk stupor, and Halperin also uses split-screen, wipes and dissolves in a few surprisingly imaginative ways. Admittedly, 'White Zombie' is of less-than-ideal quality, but even so, it has several traits worth admiring, which make it a cult B-movie classic for horror aficionados.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'White Zombie' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Kino Classics" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase, the Region Free, BD50 disc goes straight to the main menu with a still photo of the cover art and music playing in the background.
It's sad pointing out the severe negatives when there are actually some very nice positives to appreciate in this Blu-ray edition of 'White Zombie.' First, it's worth noting that this classic of bad horror cinema has never looked as good as it does here. Supposedly taken from a 35mm fine grain master, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode offers a squeaky-clean presentation, absent of the usual culprits seen in movies of this vintage, like white specks and random scratches. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, black levels are surprisingly rich and mostly stable with excellent gradational details in the grayscale and strong shadow delineation.
Unfortunately, the high-def transfer also comes with some distressing digital alterations that can't be ignored. Namely, and arguably the most dire, the picture has been scrubbed clean of its natural grain structure. This creates a largely flat and textureless viewing experience. Thankfully, it's not enough to ruin the little definition that is visible in the costumes, make-up and set design. Some close-ups of the actors even reveal pores and wrinkles, and there are many poorly-resolved sequences which are forgivable, given they're related the quality of the source. Although contrast is comfortable bright, it also runs much too hot with noticeable posterization, mild banding and blooming highlights that ruin the finer, distinct details.
Overall, it's passable, but still a rather disappointing presentation.
Things don't improve all that much with this uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack. Of course, there is also less to complain about, aside from the usual stuff of background noise, hissing and popping. The typical stuff often heard from films of this age, which are somehow made more prominent when jumping into high-rez audio. Still, the hissing in the background can be quite loud in some spots, and it tends to detract from the story's enjoyment. Fortunately, it doesn't drown out the atmospherics, as they come in loud and clear, emulating the sounds of jungle wildlife. In fact, this is probably the track's strongest aspect.
While the rest of the center channel is stable and well-balanced with a good sense of presence and imaging, the dialogue is a hit or miss. Sometimes, the conversations are crystal clear, and at other times, they sound a bit mumbled, possibly even overwhelmed by the background noise and hissing. The mid-range exhibits some good clarity and decent separation, but sadly, the higher-pitched sounds, like screams or the vulture's screeching calls, are limited with mild distortion. On the plus side, the lossless mix comes with appreciable, appropriate bass. But in the end, the classic cult horror film arrives with average, mediocre audio.
Starring the legendary Béla Lugosi as a Haitian voodoo master, 'White Zombie' is admittedly far from perfect, as the plot and acting are mawkishly over-the-top, but for horror lovers everywhere, this is a cult classic of early B-movie cinema with plenty to admire and enjoy. The Blu-ray arrives with a less-than satisfying audio and video presentation, but at least the supplements are decent enough. In the end, the overall package is one cult horror enthusiasts will want to add to their collection while others should rent first before deciding to buy.