Often considered the first major zombie film ever made, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie draws upon the Haitian legend of voodoo-controlled drones for its horror tale. The film runs barely over an hour, and for much of its running time, it’s little more than creaky B-picture fare, stricken with large gaps in logic and problematic racial connotations. Fresh off his star-making turn in Dracula, Bela Lugosi is in full-on horror icon mode, gazing menacingly as a knowing Halperin moves the camera in for a number of extreme close-ups, enveloping the frame with Lugosi’s striking visage.
Halperin proves himself to be a fairly capable filmmaker eventually with a final act that is as creepy and atmospheric as the first 45 minutes are dull and clunky. Once the table-setting expositional machinations are out of the way, the film settles in rather impressively.
Still, it’s kind of a chore to witness the initial exploits of Madeline Short and Neil Parker (Madge Bellamy, John Harron), a couple who’s traveled to Haiti to be married. On the carriage ride, the pair hears tales of the country’s vast undead population, but they may be in even greater danger from Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), a wealthy plantation owner who’s invited the couple to be married in his house. Secretly in love with Madeline, Beaumont concocts a plan to win her away from Neil, and naturally, the supernatural is his only option.
He consults with voodoo master Murder Legendre (Lugosi), who convinces Beaumont to give Madeline a potion, rendering her a zombie and faking her death in the process. Neil is heartbroken; Beaumont thinks his dream is within reach; Murder really has the upper hand over both.
The final act, set in Murder’s gothic cliff-side mansion, does little to subvert narrative expectations, but somehow, the camerawork becomes more fluid and assured, the editing less abrasively choppy and the performances more elemental. It’s not enough to make White Zombie a masterpiece, but it does salvage what previously seemed to be a mere historical curiosity.
The Blu-ray Disc
Mastered in HD from a 35mm fine grain print, White Zombie is presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. But rather than simply hitting play when you pop this disc in, better to head over to the extras menu where you’ll find a listing for the “raw” version of the film. The transfer the disc defaults to it is an over-processed mess, slathered in digital noise reduction and full of waxy, haloed figures with excessively blown-out whites.
The raw version is an identical cut of the film, just without any digital “enhancement” added. This can still be a pretty rough presentation, with a good deal of damage, frequently out-of-focus frames and a number of image and sound dropouts. Still, the film’s grain is intact, and when the materials allow for it, there’s a decent amount of fine detail visible. The extreme close-ups of Lugosi are especially nice. The public domain film has had plenty of garbage home video presentations, and though this one is undeniably rough around the edges, it’s quite watchable. It’s just too bad many viewers of this disc will just go straight for the bad default transfer.
The uncompressed mono audio is also problematic, as is to be expected. A persistent hiss is present throughout the film, as are crackling, dropouts and distorted music cues. The dialogue can get a little hard to understand at points but is mostly intelligible.
Several extras are present on the disc, including an audio commentary by film historian Frank Thompson, a 6-minute interview with Lugosi from 1932, the 1951 theatrical reissue trailer and a gallery of stills.
The Bottom Line
While the default transfer is just awful, the included raw version offers a solid home video representation of this low-budget horror.