Known as digital noise reduction, or DNR, Kino has effectively erased the film grain for a smoother, sharper image, which in my opinion is what Blu-ray is all about (Kino has used the technique before, most prominently in the Buster Keaton Shorts Collection). But grain purists have been crying bloody murder over what they consider to be the white washing of the film, and this time I can actually see their point.
There are times where the film looks completely washed out, the boosting of the brightness somehow reducing the film's chilling use of shadow. However, there are also times when the clarity of the picture is almost breathtaking. It's rare to see a film this old, especially one that is in the public domain, look so pristine. So I can see both sides of the argument here.
All controversy aside, White Zombie is a pretty important film, cinematically speaking. It was, after all, the very first zombie film. And with zombies occupying such a prominent place in our popular culture, White Zombie occupies a very special place in film history, introducing the world to the Haitian legend that would one day take on a life of its own.
Bela Lugosi was fresh off the success of Tod Browning's Dracula when he accepted the role of Murder Legendre, a mysterious aristocrat living in Haiti who commands an army of zombies, corpses reanimated through voodoo rituals, to work as slaves on his plantation. When a young couple arrives on the island to get married, their host, Mr. Beaumont, falls madly in love with the woman, and turns to Legendre to use his magic to make her love him instead. When she ends up as a zombie, both her husband and Beaumont are distraught, and set out to rescue her from Legendre's clutches.
Kino's presentation may have a few issues, but it's certainly not the disaster that some purists are making it out to be. While the damage to the raw cut is a but heavy at times (clearly demonstrating the need for the DNR), there are pros and cons to both. Watch the main presentation to be impressed by how contemporary some of the shots look (especially in close up), watch the raw cut to marvel at Halperin's striking use of shadow and eerie atmosphere. Taken together, they are a satisfying presentation of one of Lugosi's most indelible roles, now saved from the public domain bargain bin by its clearest presentation ever.
GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.