Happy New year to all the fans of classic genre cinema! In the first From the Vault Column of the new year we take a look at an early Bela Lugosi classic horror film, White Zombie.
United Artists 1932
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy
Running Time: 67 Minutes
Long before George Romero infused zombies into the fabric of popular culture, Bela Lugosi was walking with the unread. Directed by Victor Halperin and produced by his brother Edward, the film was shot on the Universal Studios lot using many props previously used in other Universal horror films. Lugosi is just terrific in this movie as the sinister 'Murder' Legrende, a 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 neighbor Legrende. Legrende's solution has dire consequences for poor Madeline. He slips her a potion which turns her into a zombie!
The movie was obviously made on a shoe string budget but there are plenty of striking visual images, especially those involving Lugosi. He is at his best looking positively Satanic with his mesmerizing eyes and facial expressions. The zombies are quite creepy (for the time period) and are the precursors to those seen in Romero’s films decades later. There’s a great scene early on as the couple spies the zombies shambling along in the distance.
If you’re going to watch White Zombie on DVD you definitely want to see the version released by the Roan Group and not any other. The Roan Group has mastered the best possible print for this 1932 horror film. Taken from the two best quality 35MM prints as opposed to the 16MM prints you usually see.
The print is very clean and relatively crisp with very little sketchy editing. The sound does need to be modulated periodically. What also makes this a big step above other releases is that it comes with an audio commentary by Lugosi Scholar Gary Rhoads, and also features two short, but interesting interviews with Lugosi, one in the early 30's, and one in the mid 50's towards the end of his life.
Tim Janson is a columnist and reviewer for Mania Entertainment. He writes Level Up, the weekly look at videogames and the horror dedicated column, Tuesday Terrors. Tim has written for Fangoria, Newsarama, City Slab Magazine, Twitch Film, and Cinefantastique. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA). Be sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter.