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You have to change your way of looking at movies to really enjoy old
horror movies like this one. Don't be in a rush to see action, violence
and don't expect to see any bloodshed at all. Most of the grisly part
is implied and you have to fill in the details. Instead, watch it for
the scenery, the acting and the plot.
I prefer the older horror films to the newer, slash-fest movies because they allow me to think and they generally have a good, moral theme. You never have a good guy as a demon or a fiend, for instance.
White Zombie has the older, traditional zombie characters that are not evil in themselves. Instead, they are mindless and controlled by a shaman, who is generally evil and must be destroyed to set the zombies, who are victims, free. In the newer Zombie movies like Night of the Living Dead, the Zombies are either not controlled or are evil themselves and must be destroyed.
I think the acting by the zombies is very good and so is their make-up (i.e. they have very frightening faces.) Their master, played by Bela Lugosi, is also played masterfully. The missionary is also good, but most of the rest of the cast is only average.
It's a fun movie to watch and I gave it a score of 7 out of 10. If you love early horror movies, buy it. Don't pay more than $10 unless it's packaged with other movies because the picture and the sound quality are weak. If not, you might catch it on a Friday night horror fest on TV. It's worth the time watching it if for Bela Lugosi alone.
A diabolical voodoo master plots to turn a beautiful young American
into a WHITE ZOMBIE, a slave of his perverted passions...
Here is one of the great unheralded horror classics of the 1930's. Almost forgotten today, it is an excellent example of what can be accomplished by an obscure film company (in this case Halperin Productions) working with a tiny budget, but using enormous flair & imagination. Some of the visuals - the opening scene of the burial on the road, the sugar mill worked by zombies - remain in the imagination for an uncomfortable amount of time, one sure sign of true success for a horror film. Certain of the settings - the hillside graveyard, the villain's towering fortress - are as good as you'll find anywhere. Additionally, the moody music of Xavier Cugat & the make-up wizardry of Jack Pierce help tremendously.
But it's the performance of Bela Lugosi, looking utterly satanic, which is truly memorable. Released the year following his celebrated Dracula, WHITE ZOMBIE gives him another character which, in measures of pure menace, is easily the equal of the Count. With his mesmeric eyes, expressive, spider-like hands & wonderfully eerie voice, Lugosi radiates absolute evil. This talented Austro-Hungarian actor (born Béla Ferenc Dezsõ Blaskó, 1882-1956) would fritter away much of his career in low-budget dregs, but here he must have realized he was in competent hands and he is obviously having a wonderful time. To see his imposing, cloaked figure stalk about the screen, closely followed by his Living Dead slaves, is to enjoy one of cinema's most deliciously spooky moments.
Madge Bellamy & John Harron are both impressive as Lugosi's victims. Robert Frazer is very good indeed as the plantation owner whose obsession for Miss Bellamy throws him right into Lugosi's clutches. Elderly Joseph Cawthorn scores as the aged missionary who may be the only person wise enough to thwart the zombie master. Movie mavens will recognize an uncredited Clarence Muse as the frightened coach driver in the opening sequence.
Zombie movies from the '30's and '40's are quite different from the
zombie movies most people know from the '70's till present time. In the
'30's and '40's, zombies and voodoo kind of rituals always walked hand
in hand. As a result of this zombie movies from the '30's and '40's
have a certain creepy atmosphere and scary voodoo sound effects.
"White Zombie" is the very first (still excising) zombie movie ever made. The zombies look extremely good and creepy thanks to the charismatic actors that perform them. Don't underestimate this people, acting with just your body and mostly face is also a form of tough acting. I think that it is thanks to the fine casting of the zombies that most of the scene's with them in it, work really well.
Bela Lugosi is totally fantastic as sort of witch doctor and 'king of the zombies'. He plays one scary monsieur. I even tend to say that this is his best villain role he has ever portrayed, yes even better as Count Dracula. Lugosi was always at his best in roles like these and just like in "Dracula" he is once more acting very well with also both his hands and face, especially his typical horror-like-eyes make him one legendary villain. For the Lugosi fans this is an absolute must see!
The story is very intriguing and sad and its told in a beautiful way. Especially the ending was fantastic and actually also quite tense.
Unfortunately time has not been kind on this movie. The movie had been lost for many years until the '60's after acquiring the rights to distribute the movie, the quality was already beyond restoration, so now days we can never watch this movie in its full glory. The movie has the grainy and visual look of movies from the 1920's and at times small chunks of sound and music are missing.
The cinematography is absolutely fantastic and the experimental editing provides some unique and extremely well looking sequences. It reminded me of some of Brian De Palma's early work. There is one unique and brilliant scene that I can't even describe. It features a split screen but the scene is constructed more complex than I make it sound. Really something you have to see for yourself.
OK maybe the beginning of the movie isn't that good and memorable and quite standard and typical for the horror genre in the '30's but the last half hour or so is really unique, excellent, tense and just a shear delight to watch, mainly thanks to Bela Lugosi's his character 'Murder' Legendre (what a brilliant name by the way) and the story in which once more love conquers all.
By the way this is the movie Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi were watching together in the movie "Ed Wood". Most people think that it was a Dracula movie with Lugosi but it in fact is this movie they're watching.
A really unique little forgotten horror masterpiece, that's worth seeing already alone for its movie historical value and Lugosi's fantastic, passioned villain role.
I'm a big Bela Lugosi fan, as well as a sucker for '30s and '40s horror
chestnuts in general. But no matter how many times I watch WHITE
ZOMBIE, I'm just always a bit short of considering it a "good" movie.
Lugosi is delightfully weird and mysterious as Murder Legendre, a
sinister zombie master who commands a legion of Walking Dead, and who
grants a favor to a jealous man by helping him possess the woman he
yearns for -- by turning her into a mindless zombie!
The surroundings are purely macabre and unsettling. But despite these assets, something goes astray in the snail-like pacing. Some of the acting is hopelessly dated and exaggerated, most notably by con man Robert Frazer and, to a lesser extent, hero John Harron. It's interesting that Lugosi - who's often lambasted by critics for overdoing it himself - is perfectly "on," however.
WHITE ZOMBIE is still a "pretty good" horror movie in its own right for such a minor production. But it's not a film I would recommend to those younger viewers who tend to feel bored by older classic films.
There's something about 1930s horror movies that makes them really special and haunting. It's probably got a lot to do with the talkies being new and directors being free to experiment with tricks learned from German expressionism. Whatever the explanation the best movies from the early 30s (James Whale's 'Frankenstein', 'Bride Of Frankenstein' and 'The Invisible Man', Todd Browning's 'Dracula' and 'Freaks') have a dreamlike quality that sticks in your brain and just won't leave. Bela Lugosi is one of the icons of horror movies. He made 'White Zombie' not long after 'Dracula', his definitive role, and gives another great performance. 'Island Of Lost Souls' is a better movie than 'White Zombie' but Lugosi on has a small role in that so I'd say this is his best movie after 'Dracula'. It's easy to forget just how quickly his career died. His two mid-30s teamings with Boris Karloff ('The Black Cat' and 'The Raven') were basically the beginning of the end for him as a major star, and by the time he played Ygor in the underrated 'Son Of Frankenstein' at the end of the decade he was almost a has been. Oh well Lugosi is just terrific in this movie as the sinister 'Murder' Legrende, Haitian mill owner and zombie master. Robert Fraser plays Charles Beaumont, a local plantation owner who becomes obsessed with a young woman (Madge Bellamy) about to be married. He invites her and her fiance (John Harron) to his estate to have their wedding all the while planning some way to win her. An hour before the wedding he becomes desperate and reluctantly approaches his sinister neighbour Legrende. Legrende's solution has dire consequences for all involved. The movie was obviously made a shoe string budget but there are plenty of striking visual images, especially those involving Bellamy after Lugosi gets to her. The zombies are very creepy and are the precursors to zombie classics later made by Tourneur, Romero, Fulci and Raimi. For this and for Lugosi 'White Zombie' is a must see for any horror buff!
A couple of years ago I saw the 1931 version of Dracula as part of a
live performance for the new musical score composed by Philip Glass.
Even in this refined setting, the film was met by laughter from the
audience during several sections. This seemed rather odd to me, but I
suppose older horror films cannot help but lose some of their initial
impact over time. The black and white photography and performance
techniques became antiquated, hence humorous to some. As time went on,
filmmakers begin to spoof the broad overacting and dramatic music of
the vintage horror picture. It is impossible today to view a film like
WHITE ZOMBIE and fully understand the impact it may have had in 1932.
It does, however, escape (for the most part anyway) the mirthful
reactions described above.
Director Victor Halprin's telling of this tale is often cited as the genesis of the "zombie picture." There is some debate about this, but WHITE ZOMBIE is certainly one of the early films to deal with the Haitian legend of "the dead that walk." The story revolves around a young couple who have traveled through Haiti to meet with their friend and benefactor Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), at whose villa they plan to be married. He has designs on the young bride, Madeleine (Madge Bellamy), and enlists the help of Murder Legendre (the name kind of says it all) played by Bela Lugosi. After the wedding, Legendre performs some "witchcraft" rituals and Madeleine falls into a death-like state. Believing that she has in fact died, the newly minted groom (John Harron) spirals into a drunken maelstrom, eventually seeking out the learned missionary Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) to help solve the mystery. All paths seem to lead back to Legendre as the plot thickens and Beaumont's true motives are discovered.
It is fascinating to watch these type of films, some of which, like WHITE ZOMBIE age well with time. This is partly due to the fact that it has been largely forgotten in the wake of the more successful Universal horror flicks. The main drawn here will be the performance by Lugosi. He essentially "vamps" his role in Dracula, but manages to fashion a fairly distinct and unsettling screen presence. It would be roles like this however that would lead to his rigid typecasting; as time went on, he was all but discarded by the film industry (see ED WOOD  for his later years). Halprin's direction focuses on atmosphere and gloom. He is well paired with cinematographer Arthur Martinelli and together they create a suitably shadow-laden backdrop for this macabre story. WHITE ZOMBIE is ambitious in camera angles and editing. At one point there is a diagonal wipe edit, which stops midscreen to reveal the actions of two separate characters. This type of effect is effortless to achieve now, but must have been laborious in 1932. Observe also the unusually large transitional set of the plantation interior, or the framing of Lugosi though the ornate stone work during certain shots. These small details help set WHITE ZOMBIE apart by creating a realistic environment and aid in visually representing the pathology of the characters.
Since the 30's there has been countless movies about killer zombies run amuck. The concept predominantly became fodder for B-grade schlock productions. The genre would experience something of a renaissance in 1968 with George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD which created quite a stir at the time and resulted in zombies becoming, once again, fashionable. The Haitian setting of WHITE ZOMBIE would also be revisited in THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988) and the "undead" as a means of cheap labor subtext would be exploited for darkly comedic effect in the underrated HBO film CAST A DEADLY SPELL (1991). In recent years, there has been such a boom of these "living dead" productions that it is hard to keep track of them all. WHITE ZOMBIE, as an early example of this current trend, but should be seen as more than just a footnote in the ever growing history of film. It is not a great movie, like Dracula, but will prove to be of interest to film buffs at least. It has more to offer, though, and I hope that it will continue to be rediscovered by successive generations. 7/10
This review will be more about the print and theatrical experience than
about the plot. Most people won't find this "useful", but hey, so what.
Here's my two cents.
If you have the opportunity to see the Roan Group print projected in a theater, don't hesitate. Go see it.
I just saw this in the big screen last weekend and it is MUCH better in a proper theater with a crowd of enthusiasts than in the confines of your home, even with a big TV and 5.1. The audience I was in was comprised of about 150 kids and their parents. The kids had a great time as did I, who has seen the movie several times over the years in the washed out public domain video prints that have circulated forever.
The Roan Group print (same as the remastered DVD) is the one we saw, projected in 35 mm. It was obvious that there were two sources for this print. The vast majority of this appears to come from a very nice print with high contrast and sharp definition. The "fill-in" portions, apparently missing from the other source, are much more typical of a 75-year-old cheapie independent production shot in 11 days, i.e., scratchy, multiple generations removed from the negative, and faded. Thankfully there's not too much from that second source. There are a few jumps in the film (a few seconds at most) that could not be restored. Too bad, but no biggie.
The sound was problematic, veering from a comfortable volume when dialogue was speaking, to way too loud, almost to the point of distortion, when the music played or the bird squawked. I really don't think it was the theater's fault as their sound is always "just right".
Interestingly, for a movie this old (pre King Kong and Bride of Frankenstein) there was a whole lot of music and not as much dialogue as one usually gets in a film from this era. The music was rarely background to dialogue and was used almost exclusively to enhance the mood of the film. It was probably cheaper to do it this way, but who cares why. It works.
This is a really neat film full of great shots and creepy characters. Bela is fantastic, maybe his best performance on film. White Zombie hardly ranks up there with the Universal classics of the era, but it is positively time for a historical and critical reappraisal of this newly restored film.
It's good on video, but on the big screen, WOW!
WHITE ZOMBIE is one of those rare early talkies where everything fits just right. Rumours have circulated for years that Bela Lugosi himself actually directed part, if not all, of the movie. Having seen all of the movies made by the Halperin Brothers in the 30's this is deffinitely the best, but DID Bela direct it? There is a quality in this film lacking from all other Halperin films. In many scenes the technique seems to have been borrowed from German silent films and Bela did work with Edgar Ulmer in Germany early in his career. Also notice that WHITE ZOMBIE is essentially a silent film with key scenes performed with a minimum of dialogue . . .or none at all; a standout moment is when Legendre (Bela Lugosi) traps the soul of Madeline (Madge Bellamy) by carving, and then melting, a wax image in her likeness. All without a single word being said. Another key sequence is a montage of scenes set against the haunting spiritual "Listen To The Lambs" performed by an offscreen chorus. Notice also the scene where Neil (John Harron, brother of former silent film star Robert Harron) and Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) are talking. The camera starts out behind Harron's back and moves out. It moves in a circle around the room while the men talk and finally goes back behind Harron to end the scene; deffinitely an Expressionist Germanic touch! Granted the film has its flaws, Joseph Cawthorn's character is supposed to be to be a Christian missionary but he has a noticably Yiddish accent. Also for a film that is set in Haiti there is an uncomfortable lack of black characters. Clarence Muse as the coach driver is the only one in the movie! Two other alleged native Haitians are white actors in blackface! Madge Bellamy's bee-stung lips and eye makeup also belong back in a silent film. Weighed against the film as a whole however, these inadequacies are slight. The cast is quite good. Robert Fraser met up with Lionel Atwill in THE VAMPIRE BAT (1934). Clarence Muse met up with Bela again in THE INVISIBLE GHOST (1944). One of the zombies is played by George Burr McAnnan who had played the puritannical leader of the farm community that ostracises unwed mother Lillian Gish in WAY DOWN EAST (1920). Also look for Brandon Hurst as a creepy looking butler. He had played the evil Jehan Frollo opposite Lon Chaney's Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923). By all means see this movie! It is well worth your time. So did Bela direct it? Alas we may never know. Then again, in an interview given in the early 1970's Clarence Muse said he clearly recalled Bela directing a few scenes. So maybe . . .
I'm not entirely sure why this film is considered a horror classic. But
having seen many other horror films from the 1930s, I would have to
agree it's definitely one of the better ones.
The plot: a Frenchman in Haiti makes a deal with Bela Lugosi to turn a beautiful young woman (Madge Bellamy, the finest 1930s woman by far) into a zombie. But then he becomes disillusioned and Bela Lugosi strikes back at the Frenchman. Oh ,and there are other zombies, an absent-minded professor and a really annoying screeching vulture.
This film has some of the strangest transitions between scenes. I forget the word for when the screen slides over, but it does it a number of times in short succession in some strange shapes (like curtains, or diagonally). And there is a weird fascination with showing Bela Lugosi' eyes and his hand gestures repeatedly. The eyes reveal what seems to me some of the fakest eyebrows ever glued to a forehead.
But if you like Lugosi or classic horror, or Madge Bellamy... yeah, you should see this film. So much crap is pumped out of theaters and studios these days in the horror genre, why not see the roots that inspired all this before it went bad?
I picked up "White Zombie" from Kino Classics since they boasted a
newly cleaned version from the original negatives. Bela Lugosi, fresh
from his hits "Dracula" and "Murder at the Rue Morgue" amongst others,
he puts a fresh face on the then-new class of mystery films.
Madeline is about to be married to her fiancé Neil. She met this guy on a boat who turns out to be a rich fella who happens to own a spooky castle in the Mountains of Haiti, a land filled with zombies and such. This guy Beaumont falls for her and does not want her to go through with the marriage. He gets the help of a zombie master, Legendre, who has other plans. He already has an army of zombies working the sugar plantation. Why not a cute girl who wears veils? Why not indeed! The story is slow-paced, but is filled with the occasional shocker. The zombies in this film are not of the "Romero" clan, but are actually living people, who through hypnosis and drugs, find themselves under the thrall of Legendre. Legendre's motives are not that clear, except perhaps he just likes to play games and wants to create horror just because he can.
I also enjoyed the character of Dr. Bruner, played well by Joseph Cawthorn. He plays the wise man to the naïve fiancé, Neil, who is grieving over the death of his new wife. Except, as the good doctor expounds, "she's not dead!" The sugar plantation plant with the zombies in tow, the clear sounds and clearly contrasted black & white, make a great film. The only real complaint is that vulture: quite a screech! DVD: The DVD has an interesting interview with Lugosi at his house, which is scripted and makes for some fun yet insight into Lugosi at the height of his career. There is a gallery of colored movie lobby cards and the usual language and chapter features. I especially enjoyed comparing the "Raw" version to the cleaned-up version of the film.
Bottom Line: Great horror for the time, has some corny moments, but overall a great product by Kino Classics. Definitely recommended, especially for the Lugosi fan.
Cast Bela Lugosi - 'Murder' Legendre Madge Bellamy - Madeline Short Parker Joseph Cawthorn - Dr. Bruner Robert Frazer - Charles Beaumont John Harron - Neil Parker
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