The 1930s chiller White Zombie is an experimental-horror masterpiece | Bleader

The 1930s chiller White Zombie is an experimental-horror masterpiece

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Bela Lugosi in White Zombie
  • Bela Lugosi in White Zombie

The first time I ever saw Victor Halperin's 1932 film White Zombie (which will be screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center twice this week in a 35-millimeter restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive) it was part of an unintentional and incongruous double feature. I had snuck into a University of Chicago classroom screening of Max Ophuls's venerated Lola Montes (1955) and then sprinted across campus to see White Zombie at Doc Films immediately afterwards. I proclaimed White Zombie—a horror cheapie with Bela Lugosi as a unibrowed necromancer in a thinly researched rendition of Haiti—to be the superior film to anyone who would listen. I thought the Ophuls film had a messy, self-conscious narrative structure and moments of unabashed melodrama, while White Zombie was pure cinema, its images of terror (clasped hands, glowing eyes) rendered with a graphic simplicity that approaches cuneiform pictographs. I wouldn't instinctively feel the need to make such a comparison today—but I wouldn't disagree with my original verdict either.

Since I was 18 years old, I assumed that my championing of White Zombie was boldly unconventional—little did I know that the film had been a consensus classic in horror-buff circles since the mid-1960s. When Wisconsin Film Society president Arthur Lenning compiled a collection of extended program notes and, in 1965, released it as a book titled Classics of the Film, he included White Zombie alongside established masterpieces like Greed, Sunrise, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and name-checked Jung, Shelley, Byron, Wagner, and Homer in his extended analysis of Halperin's zombie opus. Carlos Clarens's outstanding An Illustrated History of the Horror Films (1967) argues that White Zombie possesses more poetry and fluidity than Lugosi's breakthrough, Dracula (1931). Film historian William K. Everson bracketed Halperin's movie with Carl Dreyer's Vampyr, an avant-garde contemporary White Zombie unwittingly resembles in its pacing and freak ambience. (I'd add that it also anticipates the adult-fairy-tale-with-an-otherworldly-edge quality of Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast.)

Due to its underground popularity, we know more about the making of White Zombie than we do about many comparable Poverty Row productions. It was shot in 11 days with a budget of about $50,000 and used standing sets at the Universal lot, where Halperin had rented studio space. (It also had the uncredited assistance of Jack Pierce, the Universal makeup maven responsible for Karloff's distinctive look in Frankenstein.) Director Halperin and his producer brother, Edwin, had already been cranking out independent films on the fringes of Hollywood for about a decade. White Zombie was the 1930s equivalent of a Blumhouse production: a horror film made so cheaply (and profiting so tidily) that it called into question the extravagant budgets of other Hollywood fare.

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White Zombie has its fair share of shortcomings, chief among them almost all the dialogue spoken by everybody except Lugosi. When Joseph Cawthorn's Dr. Bruner—a Van Helsing rip-off burdened with both expository and comic-relief responsibilities—sketches the origins of zombie hoodoo, it doesn't take long for the pseudoscientific jargon to degenerate into hilariously improvised nonsense: "There's superstitions in Haiti that the natives brought here from Africa. Some of 'em can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt. And beyond that yet, in the countries that was old when Egypt was young." (The film's racial politics, while unremarkable for 1932, are cringe-inducing today.) But White Zombie also has a distinct aesthetic: the dopey split screens and zigzagging scene transitions—which the average 12-year-old would judge too gimmicky to grace a PowerPoint presentation—only add to its charm. These rudimentary special effects were achieved with then-nascent optical printing technology that had clearly seized Halperin's imagination and enlarged his visual vocabulary. Halperin's daft editing choices, harnessed to a proven box office formula, resulted in a surprisingly experimental feat of exploitation cinema.

White Zombie attracted scholarly interest and fan enthusiasm even though surviving copies resembled an ineptly reanimated corpse. (This includes the sorry 16-millimeter print that ignited my own interest in the film.) Like many independent productions of the era that were originally released by United Artists, White Zombie long ago fell into the public domain. Even if the original camera negative survived, its owner would have little financial incentive to preserve it; any new restoration would be competing with countless tapes and discs. (I count no fewer than 20 home video distributors in the U.S. alone, per IMDb.) For years White Zombie fans swore by the Roan Group's better-than-middling DVD, which was subsequently supplanted by a controversial Kino Blu-Ray, itself made obsolete by the VCI/Roan Blu-Ray.

But now the White Zombie cultists can rejoice again. To judge by the excitement on the Monster Kids Classic Horror Forum, the UCLA restoration is notable for its improved image quality and a whopping 30 seconds of additional footage not seen in any other copy. (UCLA's restoration was patched together from six different sources, which is unusual, if not unprecedented, in archival terms.) I'm looking forward to seeing the new print, but I still can't decide whether I should use the occasion to introduce the film to some uninitiated friends. Could they ever see the same ethereal, otherworldly transmission I initially found in a dim 16-millimeter print? For those who haven't yet fallen under the spell of White Zombie, encountering this strange, encrusted relic in a fresh copy might, perhaps regrettably, make it look like a normal movie.  


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