Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Frazer, John Harron, Brandon Hurst, George Burr Macannan, Frederick Peters, Annette Stone, John Printz, Dan Crimmins, Claude Morgan, John Fergusson, Velma Gresham
Written by: Garnett Weston
Directed by: Victor Halperin
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 67
Date: 08/04/1932

White Zombie (1932)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

With This Ring I Thee Dead

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Following the enormous hit Dracula (1931) Bela Lugosi had the world in his pocket. He could have done just about anything, except for the fact that Hollywood and all the movie fans only wanted him to play more horror parts. Puzzlingly, he took a role in the low budget film White Zombie. Perhaps he liked the theatricality of the role, or that it was another leading part. But even though White Zombie was, and is, a terrific film, it only further cemented Lugosi's career as a horror star. Fans of Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) may recognize it as the film that Johnny Depp and Martin Landau watch on television.

He's once again the bad guy, a man called Legendre, who runs a mill in Haiti with the help of an army of zombies. A young couple -- Madeleine (Madge Bellamy) and Neil (John Harron) -- arrives on the island, hoping to get married. A plantation owner, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), has convinced them to marry on his land. But secretly, he loves Madeleine and hopes to strike a deal with Legendre to win her away from Neil. Unfortunately, that deal involves Madeleine becoming a zombie herself.

The Halperin brothers, producer Edward and director Victor, made White Zombie as an independent film and thus probably had a great deal of control. They create some superbly atmospheric visuals, using both the natural and manmade landscapes to create a trapped, mysterious feeling. The main problem is the clunky dialogue and early sound recording. None of the actors come anywhere close to Lugosi's charisma and, as a result, the movie has several dead patches. But when the movie goes silent, it moves fluidly and alluringly.

I have heard of prints running upwards of 69, 73, and even 85 minutes, but this restored print runs only 67. It doesn't seem to suffer much for it. It's still a superb example of 1930s horror. Though the film is currently in the public domain, Kino Lorber has released a remastered Blu-ray edition, taken from a 35mm fine-grain master print. For purists, the disc also includes the raw, unenhanced film transfer (complete with scratches and dust). Historian Frank Thompson provides a helpful commentary track, and there's a fun six-minute "interview" with Lugosi from the period. Other extras include a reissue trailer and stills.

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