White Zombie (1932)

Director: Victor Halperin

This is my third go with White Zombie, and the first under really adequate conditions. My first viewings was a stupidly late at night showing on Channel 10, whose print had several minutes and crucial scenes hacked out of it for some reason. Second was about five years ago, my friend Tim used to run a film night at a pub in Glebe showing public domain horror films, of which this was one. Good to see it in full that time, but again, not the best way to see it. And so now I have the new-ish Kino edition that I scored recently, which I’ve since discovered has… interesting issues of its own. Cos it actually contains two prints of the film, an unrestored print apparently made in 1969 from the since lost original negative, and the new restoration that’s been made from it. In most of the reviews I’ve read, the latter comes in for some horrified denunciation that’s a marvel to read; indeed, one of them said the unrestored version, for all its many and varied faults, is not only better than the restoration (which they consider to be overly bright and overly sandblasted with digital noise reduction) but also the best version of the film—in the public domain for decades, and with really good original materials probably long gone—ever released on home video. Which makes me shudder at the thought of worse versions of this film being out there… Anyway, having watched both versions, well, I actually kind of like the restored one. There’s a murk to the original print that does actually work for it, but by the same token it’s nice to be able to actually see things in it (even if Frank Thompson concedes on the commentary track that the glass paintings look a bit more obvious as a result)…

The film itself? Great. Weighing it at just 67 minutes, it’s a terrific example of what I’ve been known to call the storytelling economy of older films. It was an indie production that spent most of its budget on hiring facilities from Universal, including sets from some of their films, which contributed towards making the film look rather more expensive than it was, but also personnel like makeup man Jack Pierce and, most importantly, star Bela Lugosi. This is totally his film and he rises to the villainous heights required, in a way that none of the other actors—apparently most of whom were fallen silent stars struggling to find work in talkies—particularly manage. White Zombie is, obviously, most important historically as the original zombie film, made when the very word “zombie” was still only just new to the English language, but it also has remarkably impressive atmosphere on its side; if Mario Bava’s Black Sunday has always been, for me, the prime filmic visual equivalent of the gothic novel, this actually isn’t far behind it in that respect. Much of the comment on the film does agree that the visuals are its strong point; apparently Halperin set out to make a film that was reminiscent of the already obsolete silent cinema, and he succeeded fairly well at that (there are some quite lengthy stretches without dialogue, especially near the end). If it is ultimately let down by most of the acting (Lugosi being the exception), White Zombie is still actually more solid than I remember it being.

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