Thursday, October 24, 2002


The first time I saw this was back in the mid-80's on the Nostalgia Channel, a cable network that showed mostly bad prints of public domain movies. It was indeed in bad shape, but the reason for its cult reputation was clear. The current DVD from the Roan Group is, visually, in spectacular shape. Aside from a couple of splices and jumps, it's been restored wonderfully. The print is so clear, you can see the actors' breath in several scenes. The sound is rather dicey, with volume rising and dropping occasionally, and some lines of dialogue are not quite clear. Still, this film has transcended its quickie (made in 11 days) B-movie nature to become a horror classic and in any shape, it makes for great October viewing. Neal (John Harron) and Madeline (Madge Bellamy) are a couple who arrive in Haiti to be married at the home of Mr. Beaumont (Robert Frazer, who does the best acting in the movie), a seemingly kind-hearted man who befriended the two in New York, but who actually has his own designs on Madeline. Beaumont enlists the aid of Murder Legrande (Bela Lugosi), master of a band of zombies who are employed at a sugar mill. At the wedding dinner, Legrande turns Madeline into a zombie. Everyone but Beaumont thinks she's dead, but after her burial, Legrande, Beaumont, and the zombies take her coffin and revive her in a zombified state. Beaumont changes his mind and wants her life given back to her, but Legrande has other plans.

This movie has been rightfully criticized for wooden acting (Bellamy is so bad, it's difficult to see much difference between her living state and her zombie state) and bad dialogue, but visually, it's an early talkie masterpiece of atmosphere. Virtually the entire film takes place at night and the night scenes are done very well, especially shots set in a crowded, jagged graveyard. The sets, some of the same ones that Universal used in its early 30's horror films, are good, particularly Legrande's mansion by the sea, which has a wonderful dark fairy tale feel. Dialogue scenes are fairly static, but at other times, the fluid camerawork is quite effective, with some nice shots done through doorways and staircase railings, and a well-used split-screen shot showing Neal and Madeline making a sort of psychic connection. The staring zombies and the screaming of vultures add to the creepy atmosphere. Lugosi is like a hammy Shakespearean actor when he delivers lines, but is effective in his Dracula-like close-ups. A movie to be seen at night, with the lights turned down.

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