Joshua Reviews Victor Halperin’s White Zombie [Blu-ray Review]


See, this is what happens when you share your toys.

All joking aside, shot almost entirely on Universal Studios sets, the United Artists film White Zombie has no real connection otherwise (except for its star, Bela Lugosi) to the iconic films being released during the same time from the legendary studio. An unsung curio from the golden age of horror cinema, the early ‘30s, this pre-Code oddity has for years been nearly unwatchable via poor VHS transfers and equally atrocious releases on DVD. However, thanks to the folks at Kino, their brand new Blu-ray has become the definitive way to watch this visually enticing picture.

Seen as one of the, if not the very, first “zombie film,” White Zombie follows the story of a young woman who, at the hands of an evil voodoo priest, becomes a zombie. Finding Lugosi as the film’s antagonist, the brilliantly named Murder Legendre, and Madge Bellamy as his central focus, the picture is helmed by Victor Halperin, and while it’s far from a masterpiece, it’s one of the more aesthetically intriguing pictures of its day.

Atmospheric, the film’s greatest attribute is its style. Narratively, the film is lackluster at best. The film’s premise is simplistic enough to make it an entertaining watch without much energy from the viewer, but with the rather standard (at least at this point in history) story arch, there remain to be any surprises. Lugosi is charming and fun to watch chew up every inch of scenery, and the pre-Code crudeness is in full effect here, particularly during one revealing sequence of the stunning Bellamy in a rather suggestive set of knickers. It’s inherently a melodrama in the atmosphere of a horror film, often finding comparisons (justly so, I might add) to a film like Vampyr (a vastly superior film and one of the greatest horror pictures ever made) and the work of producer Val Lewton. The performances are weak and story quite over the top but where the narrative may lack, the style it oozes is absolutely thrilling.

Halperin takes the Gothic aesthetic of a film like Caligari or Nosferatu, and with its gorgeous black and white photography, creates something truly dazzling. With the noticeable sets from Universal films popping up occasionally (there are a few sequences here blatantly shot on the set of Frankenstein) the film feels ripped right out of Universal’s early horror lineup. With moody cinematography and even more chilling set design and production design, White Zombie blends its occult narrative with a sense of dread and an icy cold disposition, ultimately turning the film from a performance piece into a tone poem that would help launch an entire genre of horror film.  And a poor sequel be damned, this is something that may not feature a memorable story, but if it doesn’t strike awe in a viewer visually, they need to have their eyes checked.

Especially if it’s the newly released, thanks to Kino, Blu-ray that they are watching.

Visually, the film has never looked better, possibly since its initial release. The cinematography here has its mood and tone back thanks to this soft yet reviving restoration from archival 35mm film elements, but the kicker here is that, not only does one get this gorgeous restoration, but it also comes with a “raw” version of the film, playing as curious a supplement as the film it is supporting, as well as a perfect example of just how superb this restoration is. With all of its grain still in tact, the film’s raw cut feels as vital as the restoration, but for a gritty and grimy grindhouse aesthetic instead of the restoration’s Gothic horror tone.

However, this is where controversy strikes. Fans of the film are upset, as are many critics of this Blu-ray, that the release de-grains the film for its restored transfer. I, on the other hand, posit that it’s all the better for it. The Gothic-tinged photography of this film is given a new, and hazy life here, instead opting for a film with a ghastly softness. Now, if the film were given an even more inclusive restoration, the film would have looked false or out of tone with its narrative. Here however, I think it is really fantastic. As is the release’s supplements.

An interview with Lugosi adorns this release, as does the trailer for the film’s re-release back in 1951. Rounding out this disc is a commentary from historian Frank Thompson that is a tad dry, but insightful, making this release a must own for horror junkies and those interested in seeing the early stages of the current leading sub genre within horror. Clocking in at 67 minutes, this isn’t the densest release you’ll see this month, but as an influential play on the Haitian zombie myth that would later become the footing for horror classics abound, it’s definitely one of its most interesting, particularly for genre hounds.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.

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