Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Even the Devil Would be Ashamed" Victor Halperin's WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)

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 a 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.

Long a public domain staple, White Zombie has recently been reissued as a Kino Lorber Blu-ray that offers up a controversial restored print of the film and some splendid extras.  To many eyes this new restoration has simply been over digitized and just doesn't look like a 1932 film anymore while others have applauded the new clarity the film contains.  While I can see both arguments, my memories of having to sit through one horrid public domain print after another of this important film caused me to pleased, and even blown away at times, buy this new version.  The argument ultimately becomes a bit pointless when one notices that Kino have added a fine 'untouched' print as an extra which should appease the purists who object to the new restoration.  The disc also includes a commentary by Film Historian Frank Thompson, some trailers and a terrific 1932 'interview' with Lugosi.  It's a fine disc and represents the best presentation yet of this haunting and unique classic. 
                                                                    -Jeremy Richey-

1 comment:

Stacia said...

I am so looking forward seeing to the Kino release. I had dismissed White Zombie for years because the PD releases I saw were all so horrible, though I didn't know it was the poor quality of the print that affected me so much. A few years ago I caught it on TCM in a nice copy and was astonished. Bela gives a fabulous performance despite the silly facial hair and the occasional goofy expression. And as many others have said, it's almost a silent movie that just happens to have some sound and a few pre-code elements (the obligatory lady in her undies shot, etc.) added in.