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Featured Blu-ray: White Zombie

March 20th, 2013

White Zombie - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

White Zombie is the first feature-length Zombie movie ever made. It was first released in theaters in 1932 and it was recently released on Blu-ray for the very first time. Will the film appeal to fans of zombie movies? Will it appeal to fans of films from that era? Will it have wider appeal? Or is it only significant because of its age?

The Movie

The film takes place in Haiti where Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy) has arrived to meet her finance, Neil Parker (John Harron). Before they can get to their destination, they pass a group of people in the middle of the road. These people appear to be burying someone. Madeleine and Neil are understandably confused and they ask the Coach Driver (Clarence Muse) what is going on. He explains they are worried about grave robbers stealing the body, so they are burying the person somewhere where there's lots of people so no one can steal it.

They stop to ask for directions to the plantation of Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) and encounter 'Murder' Legendre, who takes an interest in Madeleine. When the driver sees Legendre is accompanied by zombies, he takes off, but not before Legendre steals Madeleine's scarf. Of course Neil doesn't believe him, but at Charles Beaumont's house, they meet Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), a missionary, and when they tell him what the driver said, he's less sure it is just a simple superstition. When he learns Mr. Beaumont has taken an interest in the young couple, he's quite concerned and tells them they should leave at the first opportunity. He doesn't know Mr. Beaumont very well, but he's not known for his generosity.

Dr. Bruner's suspicions are correct and Mr. Beaumont is actually obsessed with Madeleine, whom he met earlier. He is picked up by one of Legendre's zombies and taken to his sugar plantation. Legendre has murdered many of his rivals and brought them back as zombies to use them as menial laborers. Now Mr. Beaumont is asking him to use his dark magic to help him win Madeleine. Instead, Legendre says the only way he will have Madeleine is if he turns her into a zombie. At first, Mr. Beaumont is horrified at this suggestion, but after the wedding takes place, he decides he has no choice. He gives her the concoction Legendre gave him and at dinner she dies.

Shortly after her death and burial, Legendre and Mr. Beaumont dig her up and reanimate her as a zombie. Meanwhile, Neil has fallen into a drunken stupor. In this state, he hallucinates and sees Madeleine. He goes to her crypt, but finds it empty. After this, he goes to Dr. Bruner asking for help.

White Zombie is more than 80 years old and it is impossible to talk about it without bringing up a couple of issues that come up as a result. Firstly, the film is less than 70 minutes long. That's normal for the day, but many people wouldn't call that feature-length today. It's too long to be a short film. It's like a novella of films. Secondly, it moves slowly. Again, its pacing is on par with most movies made way back then, at least given my rather limited experience with these films, but it does feel slow compared to most movies made today.

On the other hand, White Zombie has a lot going for it. The biggest positive is the performance by Bela Lugosi, who plays the Voodoo master. The film also benefits from a very creepy atmosphere. There are not a lot of scares in the movie, but atmosphere more than makes up for that. Finally, it does have historic importance. It is the first feature-length zombie movie and does set a lot of rules zombies tended to follow for decades afterward. Granted, it is low-budget and admittedly cheesy at times, but still entertaining.

The Extras

Extras include an audio commentary track with film historian Frank Thompson. There is also a vintage interview with Bela Lugosi. Finally, you can watch the movie in the "Raw" format without digital enhancements. It's interesting to see just what they had to work with.

The technical presentation is a bit mixed. There are some who really hate the restored version of the movie, complaining that the digital restoration merely wiped away details and made the image too bright. On the other hand, there are also some who have praised the restoration, especially given the age of the movie. I'm somewhere in the middle. There are times where the "Raw" version of the movie does have more details, which certainly means the DNR was overdone. But the raw version is also much darker and the shadows have eaten a lot of the details. There are also numerous specks and other signs of print damage, including missing frames. Obviously, the film could have benefited from a $1 million restoration process, like The Godfather films underwent, but this is a cult classic, and there's no way a studio was going to spend that much money on the restoration. The audio restoration went more smoothly and it is much clearer with the pops and hisses mostly gone, mostly. It is only a 2.0 track, but it is not bad given the age.

The Verdict

White Zombie is a must have for fans of classic horror films. It is a low-budget horror film, even for the 1930s, and it has not aged very well. The Blu-ray has some good extras and barring a $1 million restoration, this is as good as it will get as far as its technical presentation goes. Worth picking up.

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Filed under: Video Review, White Zombie, Godfather, Bela Lugosi