White Zombie (1932) – By James L. Neibaur

One of the most brilliantly atmospheric horror films of the 1930s, WHITE ZOMBIE benefits from a typically bravura performance by Bela Lugosi, a year after his career-defining performance in DRACULA.

This low-budget independently produced feature has generated a cult following due to its public domain status making it readily available on video for decades. Prints were usually pretty washed out, with perhaps only the Roan Corporation release being at all palatable.

Kino-Lorber through their Classics division, now offers a print produced by Holland Releasing, which has been digitally restored from a 35mm fine grain print. This beautiful, clean print with sharp picture and crisp sound further enhances the entertainment value of this excellent movie.

The Halperin brothers, who produced and directed a handful of low budget films, usually in the horror genre, made WHITE ZOMBIE. The story deals with Lugosi as a madman obsessed with a woman (Madge Bellamy), turning her into a zombie to lure her from her wealthy fiancée.

Despite working within the parameters of a low budget, WHITE ZOMBIE never seems cheap or restrained. Director Victor Halperin uses a series of wide and medium shots to present the vast bleakness of the settings, offering masterful, effective close-ups of the glaring Lugosi to help define his character. His use of darkness in some scenes is also effective, as are some rather artistic over-the-shoulder shots. His vision is never overbearing or pretentious, as a film with this low of a budget is devoid of pretense.

WHITE ZOMBIE was in only 11 days, and Lugosi was paid only $800 for his role. He later regretted taking so little money, as the film was a box office hit. It fell out of copyright, as most older low-budget indie films do, and became widely available as soon as VHS tapes started permeating the market in the 1980s. What’s interesting is that the film was lost for years, until a print as discovered in the 1960s. And, yes, Rob Zombie did indeed name his rock band after this film.

WHITE ZOMBIE is available on blu ray and DVD. There are two versions on the disc, one fully restored, and an unenhanced version with the natural film grain intact (some believe that without this, cinema loses a bit of its visual integrity). Special features include commentary by film historian Frank Thompson, a 1932 interview with Lugosi, and a 1951 re-issue trailer.

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