Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Restored White Zombie: Bela Lugosi Gets His Voodoo On

Bela Lugosi got there first—before Val Lewton, George Romero, or the AMC network.  Yet, when he appeared in what is considered the very first zombie film, it was thought to be a rather odd career choice at the time (the first of many, as it turned out).  Of course, Victor Helperin’s White Zombie (trailer here) would look like a prestige picture compared to his Ed Wood films.  In fact, the Haitian voodoo chiller has always had its champions, very definitely including Rob Zombie, but the state of the public domain prints has made it difficult for mere mortals to embrace it.  In a welcome turn of events, Kino Classics has released a crisp new restoration (produced by Holland Releasing) on DVD and BluRay, now available from online retailers everywhere.

Madeleine Short and Neil Parker are to be married in the manor house of Charles Beaumont, but they really shouldn’t.  The plantation owner is really interested in taking Short for himself.  Not exactly a seductive figure, Beaumont seeks the help of Murder Legendre, a voodoo master who runs his sugar mill entirely with zombie labor.  With a name like that, Legendre has to be evil, but whether he has supernatural powers is a debatable point.

Unable to win over Short, Beaumont slips her Legendre’s zombie mickey on her wedding day.  Soon after tying the knot, Short passes away—or so it seems.  Of course, Legendre has her up on her feet and shambling about Beaumont’s estate in no time.  Much to his disgust, the wealthy old planter finds her soulless body to be poor company.  Can Parker save her, once he pulls himself out of the bottle?  He will have some help from the missionary, Dr. Bruner, whose constant need of matches serves as the film’s annoying comic relief.

Lugosi is pretty darn sinister as Legendre, who does some really cool voodoo business with candle fetishes.  Presumably the price of sugar is down, since he cannot seem to afford a full set of buttons for his tunic (even with a horde of unpaid zombie laborers at his disposal).  Nonetheless, we should not let pedantry stand in the way of our appreciation of a great Lugosi performance.

While Lugosi delivers for his fans, his co-stars often sound like the former silent stars they were.  At least, as Parker nee Short, Madge Bellamy spends a good portion of the film in the form of a speechless zombie.  Likewise, fellow silent veteran John Harron’s over-acting will make viewers miss the mannered David Manners (the WASP-ish protagonist of Dracula, The Black Cat, and The Mummy).

So White Zombie offers Lugosi and zombies, which should be enough for viewers any day of the week.  There is also an original rumba composed for the film by Xavier Cugat, heard in the unusually expressionistic scene of Parker’s mournful binge-drinking.  Such sequences can be more fully appreciated when seen as part of the restoration, which looks tremendous on BluRay.  Although independently produced by Edward Helperin, White Zombie could be considered an honorary Universal monster movie, since it was filmed on U’s back lot, with richly detailed sets and props leased from the studio.  It also features the work of one of Universal’s biggest stars, Lugosi, and the studio’s make-up wizard, Jack Pierce.

It is ironic that Lugosi would lend his support to a comeback vehicle for former silent stars Bellamy, Harron, and Robert Frazer (who maintains his dignity as Beaumont) when his later filmography consists of one dubious attempt to re-ignite his career after another.  He deserved better karma for appearing in White Zombie.  It also happens to be nearly as stylish a horror film as The Black Cat.  Affectionately recommended, White Zombie is a film any zombie fan or Lugosi admirer should know.  It is now available in its fully restored glory, thanks to Kino Classics, with a vintage Lugosi interview included as a bonus.