Considering the genre, time period, and star actor, it's always tempting to compare "White Zombie" to the classic Universal Monster movies. However, while "White Zombie" is on par with the best of these films, it's also extraordinarily different. The Universal classics ("Frankenstein", "Dracula", "The Wolf Man", etc) tend to be relatively simple stories, often with a fascinating, easily identifiable monster at the center. "White Zombie" rejects that mold, offering something far more poignant and (at the same time), far less recognizable than the spirit-gummed prosthetic faces of the Universal monsters.
The plot is far more complex than what you normally get in a Universal monster film, including a conscious-laden villain with a relatively well developed back-story and a somewhat elaborate reason for bringing the undead into the plot line. In a sense, Charles Beaumont becomes the protagonist of this film, far more compelling and likeable than the naive couple he seeks to destroy. We can certainly empathize with his belief that he is a better suitor for Madeleine than her vapid, weak-willed fiancé. We understand and almost condone the passion that drives him, even when we know that his actions are wrong and will lead to terrible consequences. Because of this, by the time we get to the wedding ceremony, it becomes obvious that there can be no happy resolution at the close of "White Zombie"- only an end to suffering. I'd like to see a Universal monster film tackle that level of tragedy and emotional complexity. "Frankenstein" comes close, but even James Whale's brilliant work pales in comparison with "White Zombie" on certain dramatic levels (most notably the resolution).
Additionally, the supernatural presence in this film is far more alien and terrifying than what you find in most classic monster films, neither as civilized and inoffensive as "Dracula" nor as humane and misunderstood as "Frankenstein". Bela Lugosi, as the truly evil, remorseless, and cunning zombie master, is a terrifying force on the screen. He doesn't kill out of fear, hunger, or instinct. He does it because it suits his purpose. Of course, the band of undead that he commands is even more terrifying; even more inhuman and single-minded than its master. There is no one to reason with or beg to, here, and there is no well-documented weakness to use against this seemingly unstoppable force. The evil in this film is an immoral presence that does not stop to plan, worry, or second guess itself. Therein lies true classic terror.
I truly believe "White Zombie" is an obscure classic today, not because it is in some way inferior to other horror classics of the time, but rather because it lacks one clearly defined, visually memorable monster. Though I believe this was the greatest role of his career, Lugosi's human-looking zombie master was never going to get an Aurora model kit, nor were the undead people he commanded. There was no elaborate make-up or trade-mark outfit that kids could easily associate with the zombies in this film. These monsters look liked they belonged in the real world, like something you could see on the way home from the theater, instead of looking like something out of a fantasy realm of spirit-gum and prosthetics. This low budget realism made the film less marketable, but also potentially more terrifying than its contemporaries.
"White Zombie" is a rich and brilliant horror film, compensating for its lack of flashy make-up and effects with strong production value, a compelling location ("uncivilized" Haiti), great atmosphere, a tragic storyline, and a terrifying enemy. If you respect classic horror films for their artistry and creativity as opposed to their mass-marketed camp appeal, than "White Zombie" is most certainly a film that you need to see.
Regarding available versions of this film, I strongly recommend the Roan Group edition. While cheaper editions feature adequate quality images, the sound is nearly indecipherable in many places on these transfers, even with the volume turned all the way up. While the Roan Group edition is a relatively old transfer, it's still the best one available that I know of. The sound is much better here, clear enough so that understanding the dialogue is effortless during most points in the film. I understand that Amazon is offering a new "Timeless Classics" restoration of the film that appears quite costly, but I don't know anything about it. Nevertheless, I feel confident in endorsing the Roan Group edition. I have absolutely no complaints with it.
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