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This film is in the public domain, and can therefore be seen for free online. I wouldn't bother with any of the DVD releases. There are loads, and I they all use the same crappy print of the film. There's a region-free American Blu-ray release from Kino/Redemption that is worth getting hold of (although it's about £20 on amazon). It includes two versions of the film in HD, one of which has had a tonne of horrid digital noise reduction, but the other, unspoilt version is probably the best you'll see it now. This is a film-only review, though...
Most American horror films from the early 30s have pretty awesome reputations. That was the era when the horror film was born, and you can see the ways that the genre slowly develops, while still being utterly rooted in its time period. Even the films that aren't terribly good still tend to be interesting.
White Zombie appeared in 1932, the year after Dracula, Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde, which had between them pretty much created the genre. Bela Lugosi had been propelled to stardom as Dracula, and this was one of his first subsequent horror movies. It was made for an independent production company - and it's quite unusual for a Hollywood film produced outside one of the main studios to still command any respect these days. Lugosi would go on to make plenty of movies for lower budget outfits as his star waned in the late 30s and early 40s, but this is the only one that's really worth seeing.
White Zombie is famous mainly as the first ever zombie film. This is a far more polite class of zombie than modern ones - these are voodoo zombies rather than the flesh-chewing, rotting revenants we have today. It is also one of the first horror films (probably the first of the sound era) to be based around an exotic island location. It would soon be followed by the likes of Island of Lost Souls, The Most Dangerous Game, and (of course) King Kong.
Neil and Madeleine are to be married in Haiti (he works there). A rich man, Beaumont, invites them to get married at his mansion. He has ulterior motives, wanting the lady for himself. When she won't fall in love with him, he gets a local villain called Murder Legendre to seemingly kill Madeleine and then bring her back to life as a zombie...
(Would you make a deal with a man called 'Murder Legendre'? I'm not sure I would.)
The film is less than 70 minutes in length, but still manages to drag in places. Whenever Lugosi and his zombies are off screen the film sags. Neil is a deathly dull hero, and the aged priest who helps him (the film's van Helsing equivalent) is profoundly irritating. If saving the life of my beloved relied on spending much time with this guy, frankly, she could go hang.
But the zombies themselves are fairly interesting. There's something about them - a stirring of a vague echo of a trace of unease. It's very difficult for a film of that vintage to be even remotely creepy (I can think of maybe four that manage it, and then only very fleetingly). It would be going way too far to suggest that White Zombie is actually scary now, but it is possible to see how it would have been once; that's more than you can really say about either Dracula or Frankenstein. The most prominent zombie, the one with the scraggly beard and barrel chest - is fairly iconic.
The zombies are quietly creepy as a concept, even if the execution doesn't quite come off. These are the zombies of folklore, not the George Romero version. They work tirelessly for their master at night - there's one impressive scene of them silently at work, not even pausing when one of them falls into a threshing machine. They don't moan or rot; they just stand there, impassive.
The acting is very much a mixed bag. Madeleine is simply terrible. She looks pretty, in a flapper kind of way, but her line delivery is ghastly. No one pronounces 'New York' as 'New Yark'. No one! Happily in the second half, when she's been zombified, she just sits there looking pretty and staring vacantly, which is comfortably within her range. The other cast members are similarly unimpressive - the priest even fluffs his lines at one point. Presumably they didn't have the money to reshoot the scene.
But we're in it for Bela Lugosi, horror's first great ham (the second was Vincent Price, but he was doing it deliberately). His English has seemingly improved since Dracula, so he at least looks as if he understands what most of his dialogue means. He's not quite as over the top as he could be, but he walks as if constipated and has some of the silliest stuck-on facial hair I've ever seen. But for all that, there's a certain slyness around his eyes that works well, and he uses his imposing height more than he did in later films. He heavily over-emphasises a line about wine, which might be a reference to a famous line in Dracula, made only a year before - if he was already making references to his earlier work it's little surprise that his career never went anywhere. On the whole, though, this is one of his more accessible performances.
The film has a certain atmosphere, and the location has an ambience that was new to horror at the time. The croaking frogs and chirruping insects give the film an alien sound. There's a sense of menace, of the white characters being far away from civilisation. The first genuinely great zombie film - I Walked With A Zombie - would return to this kind of territory with more subtlety and panache, but White Zombie can at least be applauded for getting there first.
It most definitely can't be applauded for its racial politics, though. There are a couple of horribly stereotyped black characters (although happily they're not as over-played as in some 1940s zombie films). The emphasis in the title is very much on the word 'White' - it's not the zombification that's meant to bother us so much as the fact that it's happening to a white. And a white woman at that - there's clearly a parallel with 'white slavery'. There can be little doubt what Beaumont has been doing to poor, undead Madeleine since she was raised. When Neil learns that she may not be dead after all, but might have been taken away by the natives, he blurts ou 'better dead than that!', because in this film's world all coloured people are desperate to get their hands on a white woman. This is pre-Code, when Hollywood was still able to be mildly daring - we see Madeleine in her underwear before she marries, which wouldn't have happened even three years later.
Still, it was made a long, long time ago, and we can still appreciate it for its place in history even as we sigh at its mild racism. If you like vintage horror, you really need to see this. It's not in the first rank of 30s horror, but like I said, even the less effective films are still interesting, and White Zombie paved the way for so much of what was to come. A curio, but not all bad.