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"Before we get through with this thing we may uncover sins that even the Devil would be ashamed of."
on 24 February 2013
NB: As is Amazon's Wont, they've very unhelpfully bundled all the reviews for various editions and formats together. This review refers to Kino's 2013 Blu-ray release and also refers to the Roan Group's NTSC DVD.
At times superbly directed by Victor Halperin with imaginative use of shadows and light and blessed with what may well be Bela Lugosi's best screen performance as the wonderfully named Murder Legendre, White Zombie, although a bit creaky in places, is still one of the very best of the Thirties cycle of horror films that followed Universal's success with Lugosi's Dracula and Frankenstein the previous year. While most of the supporting players are a bit insipid, to put it generously, Bela has more than enough personality to make up for them as the sorcerer who turns his worst enemies into mindless zombies to serve his whims and who hires out his expertise to lovesick plantation owner and Harry Houdini-lookalike Robert Frazer to steal Madge Bellamy from her true love John Harron, only to decide he'd rather like to add her to his own collection.
It's a film full of wonderfully atmospheric moments, from its opening with a midnight burial at a crossroads which sets the eerie tone for the rest of the film to its climax in a gothic cliff top mansion inhabited solely by Lugosi and his living dead slaves. Then there's Legendre taking the scarf from Bellamy's neck as her carriage rides away, his zombie workforce not even noticing when one of their number falls into a mill grindstone to meet an unnaturally silent death or a distraught husband going mad as the shadows of happy revellers dance on the bar-room wall behind him and visions of his `dead' wife beckon him on, while the lovelorn colonist's fate worse than death and the horrific (offscreen) death of his butler are memorably unnerving. It's a fascinating mixture of the dreamlike and the overly theatrical, at times showing its rushed 11 day shooting schedule with a fluffed line or an awkward bit of timing from the cast only to come up with a genuinely striking moment like the surprisingly underplayed scene between Lugosi and the first of his victims to realise what is happening to him while powerless to stop it or a doom-laden atmosphere that more than compensates as its characters destroy each other in the pursuit of what they think is love. It won't give you many nightmares but it will keep you watching.
Sadly only available in a cut reissue print after a notorious rights battle led to the uncut version literally disintegrating before it could be restored, it's long suffered from a succession of poor public domain copies, the best of which was the Roan Group's NTSC version. Kino's new Blu-ray version isn't quite the huge leap forward hoped for, curiously offering two versions of the 67-minute version on one disc. The default version is a digitally restored version that, unusually for the label, has gone through a lot of tinkering and DNR work that cleans up all the blemishes and brightens up the image in places but also removes most traces of film grain to give it a different texture that's not always pleasing. Thankfully they've also included the `raw' non-digitally restored version of the film taken from a 35mm print, albeit hidden away in the extra features, and this looks a lot better despite the occasional scratches and suitably darker image. Both versions have the same running time, with a slight difference in the `restored' version accounted for by the addition of logos and restoration credits, and both have the same missing frames and odd skipped bits of dialogue, though these are more minor irritants than the major problems with other releases of the film.
The extras package is rather smaller than the Roan Group version, losing the Ship's Reporter interview with Lugosi returning from shooting Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (in which "I mayk komady by scaring evaryvun arownd me") but carrying over the 1932 short Intimate Interview with Bela Lugosi playing up his newfound success in Hollywood and the 1951 reissue trailer narrated with typically stilted melodrama by Criswell, replacing the previous audio commentary by Gary Don Rhodes with a new one by Frank Thompson and including a rather good stills gallery of hand-colored lobby cards.