White Zombie (2014)
Rag N Bone Productions
Reviewed by Joshua Skye
3 ½ stars
The original film, White Zombie, is a nostalgic piece of vintage horror starring the eternally popular Bela Lugosi. It is often cited as the first zombie movie. It tells the eerie tale of a young woman’s transformation into one of the undead. It was a financial success, but a critical flop. Reception was not good upon its initial release, but time has softened opinion and it has become a cult classic. There was a sequel called Revolt of the Zombies. Both films are in the public domain and regularly available in large volume value packs from budget distributors, the quality of the print usually quite poor. Official, clean versions are also available. There have been a couple of remakes in the last few years, but Rag N Bone Productions version stands out among them. It’s a re-imagining with a specific goal, to surpass the source material while flourishing it with an intriguing steampunk aesthetic.
Written by Susan Sheppard and directed by Arthur Leo Collins, this 2014 production has been expanded to twice the length of the original film, some might say dragged kicking and screaming to two hours long. The story is basically the same, jealously and desire put a young bride in a tomb and, through voodoo rites, and no small amounts of alcohol and superstition, transforms her into a White Zombie. All is not quite as it seems here, however, and her bereaving groom seeks to rectify what has been wronged. Sheppard’s script is quite good for the most part, but occasionally bogged down by some truly cringe-inducing dialogue. A few twists keep the plot engaging, and though this is an altogether family friendly affair, low on violence and bereft of bloody gore, some allusions to necrophilia and other grotesqueries might just hold the interest of those who like their horror tinted with sexual depravity.
The steampunk embellishments are unfortunately more subtle than I would have liked and they will certainly disappoint hardcore fans of that sub-genre, but they do enhance director Arthur Leo Collins’ gothic intentions. He makes great use of costumes and sets, filming them with an expert eye. Scenes are perfectly balanced and very pleasing to behold when one can look beyond the obvious restraints of the low-budget and the choice to film with digital equipment. The limitations of the medium are most noticeable during scenes involving motion, especially fast movements. For example, the opening carriage ride in the dark has some issues, and there are conspicuous artifacts during some vividly lit scenes that distort faces. It can be distracting to some viewers. Whereas it seems the filmmakers took their time creating the first 70 to 90 minutes of the movie, the final act appears rushed.
The acting is, as they say, strictly on the level of community theatre. Some performers are better than others, but for the most part line readings are bland and almost comically clichéd, particularly sinister laughter. A couple of the actors are about as charismatic as cardboard, to be brutally honest. As with many horror films, such weaknesses can be easily overlooked when the movie has an unusually inventive plot, a really cool monster, or some unexpectedly freakish elements, White Zombie has none of those. What it does have is an obvious adoration of the material on the part of the filmmakers. There is no doubt this was a labor of love.
For me, the movie’s ultimate redemption, what makes it transcend all of its shortcomings, lies in the voodoo-like spell it weaves. It’s dark, moody, bathed in shadow. Wallowing in its gothic adornments, the movie perfectly reverences its vintage source material but adds elements from other, more modern, cult classics that elevate it. I could not help but be reminded of Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, Arthur Leo Collins seeming to channel the creator of that film throughout. So too are there moments that bring to mind Suspiria, especially lighting choices early on. Bizarre and fantastical, the surreal quality lulls the open and willing viewer into a kind of trance, pulling them into the goings-on as one would be hypnotized by a fever dream. I love just such movies, the most famous of which is Phantasm.
This re-imagining of White Zombie is, through all its faults, pretty damn good. It won’t win over most horror fans, especially those only interested in blood, guts, gore, and overt sexuality. This is a homage to old school gothic cinema that might just rise above the genre as it reaches out, however inadvertently, to a more diverse fan base. You don’t have to be a horror junkie to like this movie, nor do you have to be a snobby cinemaphile. You simply have to be someone who recognizes the love, ambition, and behind the camera talent involved in the process here. It’s certainly flawed, but it is something that everyone involved with it can be proud of.