Studio: Kino Classics
US BD Release Date: January 29, 2013
Original Release Year: 1932
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 69 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 (pillar-boxed)
Audio: English (PCM 2.0 Mono)
Movie: 3 out of 5
After the success of Dracula in 1931 for Universal, Bela Lugosi appeared in White Zombie, a low budget horror film produced by the Halperin Brothers, as Murder Legendre, a voodoo master in charge of running the sugar mill for Haitian plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). When Madeline (Madge Bellamy) arrives in Haiti to be married to her fiance Neil Parker (John Harron), Beaumont invites the couple to have the ceremony performed at his mansion. But both Beaumont and Legendre are infatuated with Madeline, and during the reception, Legendre transforms her into a zombie at Beaumont’s request. Neil turns to missionary Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), who performed the wedding ceremony, to find a way to save Madeline from her tragic fate.
While not a great film by any means, White Zombie is one of the better films Lugosi appeared in following the hugely successful Dracula, before he would eventually become typecast in roles that would often parody his star-making role. Lugosi is one of the few good performances in a film featuring many silent stars who never quite made the transition to talkies. Madge Bellamy’s performance as Madeline is so stiff that it is hard to distinguish if her character was a zombie before the transformation. Robert Frazer plays Baeumont with the overacting that may have been acceptable in the silent era, but comes across as too much, even in the early days of sound. And Joseph Cawthorn, who is given the responsibility of comic relief with his running matchstick gag, overstays his welcome very fast.
Where the film excels is in its production design and use of early optical effects. As a way of saving money, the Halperin’s leased many of the same sets and props Universal used on Dracula and Frankenstein (they even shot much of the film on the Universal lot), giving the film a much higher production value. White Zombie also made interesting use of split screens and wipes, as well as double exposures and matte paintings.
Video: 2 out of 5
Kino’s new Blu-ray (and DVD) offer the viewer two versions of White Zombie to watch. Selecting Play Film from the Main Menu takes you to the recent restoration financed by Holland Releasing and completed using AlgoSoft’s automated VIVA software after a 2k harvest from a 35mm collector’s print (as well as a 16mm print for missing footage), which automatically detects and corrects and/or removes dirt, flicker, imperfections, brightness, grain, noise, and other defects. What the software ultimately proves is that restoration of a film is an art form, not something that can be easily accomplished by simply loading a computer program and hitting “run.” The 1080p transfer, compressed using the AVC codec, retains the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, but brightness and contrast are completely blown out, grain has been almost completely obliterated, and the software has difficulty keeping up with many of the changes in light levels, resulting in very noticeable banding. Edge enhancement has also been overused, causing extreme halos around light sources, such as candles. On the completely other end of the spectrum, Kino has included what they refer to as a “raw, unenhanced” transfer that can be found in the Extras section of the disc. The “raw” version looks only slightly better than the poor transfers we’ve been seeing of this title on public domain DVDs and VHS tapes for several years. The image is overly dark, with intense grain buildup likely from being several generations removed from the original negative. In the proper hands, the restored version should have been somewhere between the two versions provided on this disc.
Audio: 3 out of 5
For the audio portion of the restoration, Holland Releasing turned to Chace Audio by Deluxe to clean up the existing soundtrack. I’m happy to report that Chace did as good a job as could possibly be done, considering the source material they had to work with. The PCM 2.0 mono soundtrack on the restored version has a much cleaner sound, with pops, crackles, hiss, surface noise, and dropouts less noticeable than the raw version.
Special Features: 3 out of 5
All of the special features are in high definition.
White Zombie (RAW) (67:16): Running approximately one minute shorter (due to the addition of logos and restoration credits to the restored version), Kino presents the film in an unaltered form, free of any digital enhancements (see the video section above).
Audio Commentary by Film Historian Frank Thompson: Thompson provides some interesting history behind the film and its producers, as well as some of the untrue myths told by the film’s stars. Unfortunately, Thompson does praise the restoration work performed on the film.
Intimate Interviews: Bela Lugosi (6:51): Dorothy West interviews Lugosi at his home in this vintage short produced by Talking Picture Epics.
Theatrical Trailer (2:47): This is the 1951 re-release trailer.
Still Gallery: A series of 16 lobby cards and posters from the film’s press kit.
Overall: 2.5 out of 5
Although it is nice to see a company willing to finance the restoration of a film that has fallen into the public domain, it is a shame that the money could have been spent on a better, hand-crafted restoration than this botched, automated effort. Kudos to Kino for including an unadulterated version, but it just proves that you can’t turn everything over to a computer and press the start button.
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