Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Notes on my Favorite Films Year By Year (1932) White Zombie

With its place firmly rooted in film history as one of the very first Zombie movies, 1932's White Zombie has cast a much bigger shadow than anyone would have guessed in 1932 when it failed to captivate either audiences or critics. Theatrically released by United Artists and independently financed by the director Victor Halperin's own production company, White Zombie is an flawed work marred by some poor supporting performances and, at times, a lazy script, but it survives due to its sheer audacity and verve and it remains one of the most compulsively watchable horror films of the period.

Starring the incomparable Bela Lugosi as well fascinating Madge Bellamy, White Zombie is a work steeped in strangeness and the behind the scenes stories of lost and found prints, censored versions and its inability to just fade away only adds to its allure. Creepy, atmospheric, and strangely erotic White Zombie is, despite its faults, a rather perfect opening film in what has become one of the most popular and longest running sub-genres in all of cinema.

I first saw White Zombie in my early twenties after a buddy at a record store I haunted talked my ear off about the strange power it had over him. Borrowing his copy to watch for the first time, I must admit that I had trouble seeing much beside its flaws during that first viewing. Halperin's spooky production seemed quite a weak counterpart to the Universal horror films I had seen from the period but, like my friend had warned, certain moments and images from the film kept nagging at me...images that caused me to revisit it again and again while my appreciation for Halperin's accomplishment grew more and more.

Despite its faults and missteps, White Zombie has become over the years one of my favorite films from the early thirties and I get a real kick out of seeing traces of it in the works of everyone from Lucio Fulci to Rob Zombie, who helped bring the film back to the public eye when he named his immensely popular Metal band after it.

Sadly White Zombie fell into the rather doomed public domain market long ago and, while it remains fairly easy to see, finding a good print of it can be tricky. This version from Roan DVD is probably the best currently available and it thankfully comes with some extras like a commentary and some vintage interviews with the forever iconic Bela.


dfordoom said...

For my money it's Bela Lugosi's most effective performance.

Jeremy Richey said...

I think so too...thanks for commenting!

Will Errickson said...

And his name is MURDER LEGENDRE! How badass is that?!

I had the same trouble watching this when I was younger: it was so cheap-looking compared to the Universals and the VHS image was so crappy I had to give up. 3 or 4 years ago I caught up with it on TCM at Halloween & found it to be eminently watchable. Good call, Jeremy (tho' the horror movie I'd go with from '32 would be ISLAND OF LOST SOULS).

Ace89 said...

"White Zombie," for all its imperfections, remains a fascinating film even 80 years later. I agree that it is one of Lugosi's best performances (the thing with the handgrip is priceless) and the atmosphere is pervasive. (And Madge Bellamy has grown on me.) It is a welcome part of my classic horror collection- I watch it every Halloween.