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By Joe Bendel. Bela Lugosi got there first—before Val Lewton, George Romero, or the AMC network. Yet when he appeared in what is considered the very first zombie film, it was thought to be a rather odd career choice at the time (the first of many, as it turned out). Of course, Victor Helperin’s White Zombie would look like a prestige picture compared to his Ed Wood films. In fact, the Haitian voodoo chiller has always had its champions, very definitely including Rob Zombie, but the state of the public domain prints has made it difficult for mere mortals to embrace it. In a welcome turn of events, Kino Classics has released a crisp new restoration (produced by Holland Releasing) on DVD and Blu-ray, now available from online retailers everywhere.

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Madeleine Short and Neil Parker are to be married in the manor house of Charles Beaumont, but they really shouldn’t. The plantation owner is really interested in taking Short for himself. Not exactly a seductive figure, Beaumont seeks the help of Murder Legendre, a voodoo master who runs his sugar mill entirely with zombie labor. With a name like that, Legendre has to be evil, but whether he has supernatural powers is a debatable point.

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Unable to win over Short, Beaumont slips her Legendre’s zombie mickey on her wedding day. Soon after tying the knot, Short passes away—or so it seems. Of course, Legendre has her up on her feet and shambling about Beaumont’s estate in no time. Much to his disgust, the wealthy old planter finds her soulless body to be poor company. Can Parker save her, once he pulls himself out of the bottle? He will have some help from the missionary, Dr. Bruner, whose constant need of matches serves as the film’s annoying comic relief.

Lugosi is pretty darn sinister as Legendre, who does some really cool voodoo business with candle fetishes. Presumably the price of sugar is down, since he cannot seem to afford a full set of buttons for his tunic (even with a horde of unpaid zombie laborers at his disposal). Nonetheless, we should not let pedantry stand in the way of our appreciation of a great Lugosi performance.

While Lugosi delivers for his fans, his co-stars often sound like the former silent stars they were. At least, as Parker nee Short, Madge Bellamy spends a good portion of the film in the form of a speechless zombie. Likewise, fellow silent veteran John Harron’s over-acting will make viewers miss the mannered David Manners (the WASP-ish protagonist of Dracula, The Black Cat, and The Mummy).

So White Zombie offers Lugosi and zombies, which should be enough for viewers any day of the week. There is also an original rumba composed for the film by Xavier Cugat, heard in the unusually expressionistic scene of Parker’s mournful binge-drinking. Such sequences can be more fully appreciated when seen as part of the restoration, which looks tremendous on Blu-ray. Although independently produced by Edward Helperin, White Zombie could be considered an honorary Universal monster movie, since it was filmed on U’s back lot, with richly detailed sets and props leased from the studio. It also features the work of one of Universal’s biggest stars, Lugosi, and the studio’s make-up wizard, Jack Pierce.

It is ironic that Lugosi would lend his support to a comeback vehicle for former silent stars Bellamy, Harron, and Robert Frazer (who maintains his dignity as Beaumont) when his later filmography consists of one dubious attempt to re-ignite his career after another. He deserved better karma for appearing in White Zombie. It also happens to be nearly as stylish a horror film as The Black Cat. Affectionately recommended, White Zombie is a film any zombie fan or Lugosi admirer should know. It is now available in its fully restored glory, thanks to Kino Classics, with a vintage Lugosi interview included as a bonus.


Posted on February 5th, 2012 at 2:03pm.

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By Joe Bendel. New York’s subway rats have finally met their match. That is a bad thing. When mutant spiders crash to Earth with some old space junk, they take roost throughout the lower Manhattan tunnel system in Tibor Takacs’s creature feature Spiders 3D (trailer here), which opens in California theaters this Friday.

Who knew downtown stations still took tokens? Probably not for long, though. They are about to be renovated the hard way. Jason Cole is just starting his shift at the transit command center, when the “Noble Street” stop is rocked by the remains of a Soviet space station that somehow carefully threaded its way through the surrounding buildings, into a perfect man-made lair. Since the spiders are not viral, initial tests give Cole the go ahead to re-open the station. However, when waves of rats start freaking out and dying, even the MTA (or NYT as they are called here) can tell they have a problem on their hands.

It turns out the Soviet-era brain-trust spliced some ancient alien DNA together with some spiders because that seemed to be the thing to do at the time. The resulting mutants cast some wicked webs that supposedly have all kinds of military applications. That is why the American armed forces have set up shop somewhere just north of Battery Park City with the original scientist who masterminded the Soviet experiments.

Spiders indulges in the annoying fantasy that a former Soviet scientist has the standing to give a high ranking American military officer a lecture on morality. Indeed, the clichéd villainy of Col. Jenkins is a real buzzkill in what could have been a perfectly pleasant exercise in campy bug-hunting. Let’s be honest, if mutant spiders really do start falling from the sky, we’ll be praying to see the American troops arrive.

From "Spiders."

Not surprisingly, Spiders works best during its most Cormanesque moments. The special effects are a decidedly mixed bag, but the creepy way their legs move looks good on camera and jut out well for 3D presentations. For the most part, though, it is glaringly obvious this is a B-movie, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Starship Troopers’ Patrick Muldoon, who previously co-starred in Takacs’s Sci-Fi Channel movie Ice Spiders, is pretty credible as a transit bureaucrat under extreme stress. By now, he and Takacs must be real experts on surviving a mutant spider attack. Christa Campbell also shows some screen presence amid the bedlam as his ex-wife Rachel, a researcher with the city health department. As one would expect, Spiders follows in the long genre tradition of couple’s therapy through monster rampage. British actors William Hope and Pete Lee-Wilson largely embrace their characters’ stereotypes, chewing a fair amount of scenery as Col. Jenkins and Dr. Darnoff, respectively.

While watching Spiders, it is hard not to think of Rick’s line in Casablanca: “there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you try to invade.” Sure, the mutant spiders terrorize lower downtown, but if they tried coming uptown we’d see who’d be crying then. Spiders should have been a lot more fun, but the anti-military bias is just a tired bummer. For giant mutant genre diehards, it opens this Friday (2/8) in the Golden State, including the Burbank Town Center 8 and the AMC Atlantic Times Square in Monterey Park.


Posted on February 5th, 2012 at 2:02pm.

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