Retro Review: WHITE ZOMBIE Walks Again in the World Premiere of an All-New Restoration at Atlanta’s Historic Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Jan 16th, 2013 By:

WHITE ZOMBIE (1932); Dir. Victor Halperin; Starring Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, John Harron and Robert Frazer; World premiere Friday, Jan. 18 @ 8:00 p.m. hosted by Prof. Morte (scary details at end of story), and Jan. 25-31; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Long before George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD forever redefined “zombie” in the public mind as “undead, flesh-eating ghoul,” the Halperin Brothers first brought the Haitian legend of the zombie to the screen with 1932’s WHITE ZOMBIE.

The movie finds young couple Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron) reuniting in Haiti to be wed at the plantation of their friend Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). Beaumont’s secret love for Madeline drives him to visit local voodoo master Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) in order to enlist his help in winning Madeline’s hand. Legendre provides Beaumont with a potion that will transform her into a zombie, robbed of her will and love for Parker. He complies with Legendre’s instructions, but soon finds that the villainous voodoo master has plans of his own for the young beauty.

In 1932, America was in the midst of a newfound fascination with voodoo due to New Orleans’ emergence as a tourist destination. Interest was further fueled by authors such as William Buehler Seabrook. Seabrook was a well-traveled journalist, explorer, occultist and Georgia resident who had gained renown by documenting occult practices across the globe, including some of the only objective contemporaneous reporting on Aleister Crowley. Seabrook’s interest in the occult led him to spend considerable time in Haiti researching voodoo and the Culte des Morts. This adventure resulted in his 1929 book THE MAGIC ISLAND, which introduced the concept of the “zombie” to American audiences.

Producer Edward Halperin and his brother, director Victor Halperin (along with screenwriter Garnett Weston) capitalized on the nation’s interest in voodoo by borrowing liberally from both Seabrook’s work and Kenneth Webb’s 1932 Broadway play, ZOMBIE, and crafted an atmospheric masterpiece. The Halperins enlisted Bela Lugosi, fresh off his success in Universal’s 1931 smash DRACULA. It’s unclear as to Lugosi’s reasons for choosing to immediately follow a major studio hit with a micro-budgeted independent film, but he may have seen it as a way to stretch his creative muscles in a low-risk venture. Although he was paid little for his role (reports vary from $500 to $5000), his co-star Clarence Muse reported that Lugosi rewrote portions of the script, restaged some of the scenes and even directed portions of the film. His personal investment in the end results may be why Lugosi considered WHITE ZOMBIE a favorites among his own movies.

It could also be because it’s just a damned fine film.

The film deftly balances the legendary with the actual. While Legendre’s zombies are the reanimated corpses of Haitian lore (their look provided by Universal’s maestro of makeup, Jack Pierce), the film also depicts his use of a poison that emulates death and results in the victim’s deathlike trance and subsequent subservience to a bokor or sorcerer. Though this method had long been suspected, a pharmacological explanation for the zombie phenomenon wouldn’t be confirmed until ethnobiologist Wade Davis’ explorations into Haiti in the 1980s.

Beyond the film’s knowing mixture of fact and fiction, it benefits from the collaboration of Victor Halperin, cinematographer Arthur Martinelli and music superviser Abe Meyer. Together, they take what may have read on the page as stagebound and stodgy and create a dreamlike vision that mirrors Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR (also 1932), echoes elements of contemporaneous Universal horrors and anticipates Val Lewton’s exercises in atmosphere and sound design. Constantly inventive staging and camera work—taking place on sets borrowed from DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME—operate in sync with native drumming, chants, ambient noise, eerie rearrangements of classical works and original music by Xavier Cugat to deliver a palpable sense of creeping death under the oppressive hand of Murder Legendre.

And in the role of Legendre, Lugosi becomes the embodiment of evil itself. No other role—not even Dracula—fully utilizes his mesmeric power and hypnotic presence. From the opening scene, when his eyes are superimposed on the landscape of Haiti, his presence is felt in every frame of film; this is the power of his performance as Murder Legendre. The Halperins attempted to recapture the magic of this film with a sequel, REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES, but made the mistake of attempting to replace Bela with Dean Jagger. It’s no small wonder that the subsequent film failed.

For years, WHITE ZOMBIE only circulated on washed-out transfers of faded 16mm prints, mastered for public domain VHS and TV broadcast. In 1999, two rare 35mm prints were used to create the restored version released on DVD by the Roan Group. However, those prints were hardly in pristine condition, displaying evident damage and dropped frames.

Left to right: Bela Lugosi as voodoo master Legendre, a mesmerized Madge Bellamy and a concerned John Harron in WHITE ZOMBIE (1932).

In recent years, Los Angeles-based Holland Releasing had heard that a previously unknown complete 35mm print was rumored to be in the possession of an aged film collector. Thomas W. Holland (a previous resident of Roswell and Marietta) spoke about the efforts to track down this elusive print and its owner. “I heard a rumor about an old fellow who claimed to have a superb, original 35mm print and that began a worldwide search to find this aging, eccentric film lover and convince him to let us acquire the film for a full restoration.  People think I’m joking when I say I had to go through a friend of a friend of a friend to contact this man.” When the print was found, Holland was stunned at its overall condition. “It must have been removed from theatrical service early on, or been set aside as a special studio print.” The Holland Releasing group then set about restoring the film.

AlgoSoft-Tech USA, based in Bishop, Georgia, was hired to return WHITE ZOMBIE’s image quality to its original standards. AlgoSoft’s president, Dr. Inna Kozlov, a famed mathematician in her native Russia, took on the project with great excitement. “We arranged to have the vintage 35mm print scanned, frame-by-frame, at a very high resolution so as not to lose any information.” From that point, Dr. Koslov and her technology developer, Dr. Alexander Petukhov wrote customized software to correct any imperfections in each frame. “Our goal was to return the film’s visuals to how they looked in 1932, the way a vintage carbon arc light source would have glistened through a silver nitrate print of the era.”

Another Atlanta firm, Crawford Media Services, was chosen to do the final re-assembly of the motion picture which included intensely detailed color-correction. “Being a black-and-white film, WHITE ZOMBIE required far more expertise and patience than a typical color feature to get the light levels correct,” says producer Holland. “This film is a gothic masterpiece, and we wanted it to look exactly the way it did when audiences first saw it.”

Once the Georgia image work was completed, the master was sent to Chace Audio by Deluxe in Burbank, California. Using a variety of sources, Chace remastered the film’s faded audio tracks to restore the sound to match the quality of the restored image. “Early sound films had a tremendous amount of inherent hiss, clicks and pops,” Holland says, “but Chace was able to give us a new audio track that greatly reduced this. We weren’t looking to make a hi-fi version of the WHITE ZOMBIE track, just a cleaner, clearer representation of how the movie originally sounded in theaters of the ’30s.”

Of course, any restoration invites an amount of controversy, and WHITE ZOMBIE is no exception to this rule. The Holland restoration, which has been licensed for use on an upcoming DVD and Blu-Ray release by Kino/Fox Lorber, is already attracting its share of debate from advance reviews. (The release offers two viewing options for comparison: the Holland restoration and a “raw” transfer of the print used prior to AlgoSoft’s restorative work.) However, without actually being able to see an arc light-projected silver nitrate print of WHITE ZOMBIE, it’s impossible to say that the Holland restoration is an inaccurate representation of how the film looked in 1932.

What is most exciting, though, is the chance to see WHITE ZOMBIE on the big screen once again as the restoration makes its world premiere at the Plaza Theatre. The Plaza is making this night a grand event. Hosted by Professor Morte of the Silver Scream Spookshow (aka Shane Morton) and Blake Myers (Atlanta effects artist, filmmaker, Buried Alive Film Festival programmer and ATLRetro Kool Kat, whose credits include THE WALKING DEAD and V/H/S), the film will be preceded by the vintage Betty Boop cartoon “Is My Palm Read?” and followed by the 1932 short subject “An Intimate Interview with Bela Lugosi.” Following the filmed entertainment, the team behind WHITE ZOMBIE’s restoration will take part in a question-and-answer session. And attendees will have a chance to win a lifetime all-inclusive ticket to the Plaza, original Plaza seats and T-shirts and monster masks from event sponsor Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse.

Following its premiere on January 18, the film will be showing at the Plaza for a full week, running from January 25-31, and will be shown on a one-time-only basis in theaters across the Unites States and Canada. But you can be there first and see WHITE ZOMBIE brought back to life at its world premiere in Atlanta.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Retro Review: Viva Morte! Viva la Plaza! Celebrate the Plaza Theatre as the Silver Scream Spookshow presents ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN!

Posted on: Dec 20th, 2012 By:

Silver Scream Spookshow presents ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948); Dir: Charles Barton; Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Glenn Strange; Sat. Dec. 22;  kids’ matinee at 1 PM (kids under 12 free & adults $7) and adult show at 10 PM(all tickets $12); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Let me get personal for a minute here.

This month’s Silver Scream Spookshow at the Plaza Theatre is a special one for me. Not just because every Spookshow is its own special thing. And not just because the Plaza is Atlanta’s oldest running independent cinema, which is just incredible in its own right. But because the film being presented—ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN—is my very first memory. The earliest thing I can recall from childhood is trying to fall asleep while watching Glenn Strange’s monster lurching about a pier in a film on the “late-late show” my mom was watching. It’s stuck with me. That’s why one of my most treasured possessions as a kid was a glow-in-the-dark poster of James Bama’s portrait of Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein monster. (Thanks, Super Sugar Crisps!) That’s why I’ve got Glenn-as-Frankie tattooed on my forearm. In the years since that fateful day, I’ve watched this movie over and over again and I’ve never grown tired of it.

For those not in the know, here’s the lowdown on this flick: Chick (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur (Lou Costello) are bumbling baggage-claim clerks in Florida. Thanks to a late-night delivery of mysterious crates to a wax museum, they unwittingly wind up caught in Dracula’s (Bela Lugosi) evil plot to replace the Frankenstein monster’s brain with a more receptive one: that of the dim-witted Wilbur. Lawrence “Wolf Man” Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) enlists their assistance in stopping Dracula’s fiendish plot, and once the full moon rises, the whole thing turns into a large-scale monster bash along the lines of 1944’s HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN or 1945’s HOUSE OF DRACULA. Just a whole lot funnier.

Besides the film’s early imprinting on my developing mind, though, the film is notable for many other reasons. It’s Bela’s second and final feature-length performance as Dracula (he had a cameo as Dracula in 1933’s HOLLYWOOD ON PARADE theatrical short). It’s one of the few horror comedies in which the monsters are not treated as the butts of the film’s jokes; the horror elements are respected and presented practically as seriously as they were in any other Universal film, while the comedy largely rises from Bud and Lou’s interplay and reactions to the horror. (This, however, didn’t stop Boris Karloff from refusing to see the film, believing it to be disrespectful toward the horror genre.) All three of the “monster” actors had played the role of Frankenstein’s monster (with Chaney even briefly playing him during the course of this film when Glenn Strange broke his foot on a falling lighting rig), and both Chaney and Lugosi had played Dracula. Vincent Price even makes a surprise cameo (though don’t keep your eyes peeled for him).

Dracula (Bela Lugosi) hypnotizing Bud AbbotT in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Universal Pictures, 1948.

But beyond even those items of interest, there’s a larger and more personal reason why this Spookshow is a special event this month: it’s the final Silver Scream Spookshow being held at the Plaza under the watchful eye of Jonathan and Gayle Rej, the Plaza’s owners and operators since 2006.

Let me make another personal detour here. The Plaza Theatre is, to me, a sacred space. It’s almost a religious temple, dedicated to conjuring and making manifest the spirit of cinema. And over its history—from movie palace to grindhouse to a showcase for independent film and performing arts—it has presented Atlanta with the full spectrum of the cinematic experience. And more than that, it has become a central, vital spot in my life. When I first moved back to the Atlanta area in 2006 after more than a decade away, I was working from home and initially didn’t get out much. It took me a while to get settled in and motivated to check out what was going on. That was when I saw a flyer for the Silver Scream Spookshow in the window of Junkman’s Daughter. It promised a revival of the classic Spook Show tradition of live stage shows augmenting showings of classic horror flicks—a phenomenon that I was old enough to remember coming to my home town, but young enough to have never personally experienced—presented by Professor Morte, an old-school-styled horror host from the cracked mold of Ghoulardi and Zacherley. So I went. And went. And went again.

The Frankenstein Monster meets Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Universal Pictures, 1948.

Being a movie fanatic, the Plaza quickly became the center of much of my recreational time because more than simply being a theater, it has spawned a community. Most of the people I know and the friends I have, I have met either directly or indirectly through the Plaza. In fact, I wouldn’t be writing this piece for this fine website if it weren’t for the Plaza. And if it weren’t for the hard work and dedication of Johnny and Gayle Rej in the face of economic struggles that would have beaten down lesser mortals, none of the above would have existed.

As you may or may not know, Johnny and Gayle have sold the Plaza to Michael Furlinger, who recently revived the classic Terrace Theatre in Charleston, SC. I spoke with Shane Morton, the mastermind behind Morte, for his thoughts on the end of the reign of the Rejs and the beginning of a new era for the Plaza.

“I think out of all the phases that the Plaza has gone through, that Johnny and Gayle have really turned it into something much more than just a movie theatre. Something beyond just building the stage and clearing out the space in the back for us to work. It’s like they gave this place a soul. You can feel it when you walk in there. And if I can be selfish, they’ve given me a place to do what I think is the most important work of my life with the Spookshow. We recently did a showing of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925), and I spent 15 minutes turning a kid into Lon Chaney’s Phantom. All that time, I was talking to the audience, and I felt the passion that one of those true-believer preachers must feel—not one of those charlatans that’s just out for money or to bang chicks or whatever. I got to preach about the magic of the movies. I not only get to be this hero (or anti-hero, if you want); I get to educate kids and give them something that they don’t have enough of right now. Kids’ programming today sucks, and they don’t have the kind of stuff available to them that even you and I had growing up; they don’t see things like the original KING KONG, stuff that filled me with a sense of wonder and amazement at the age of four.”

Shane went on to discuss the creative development that the Plaza has encouraged: “It’s become a hub for a lot of creative people: Splatter Cinema, Blast-Off Burlesque’s Taboo-La-La series and all the great art shows that they’ve hosted at the Plaza. Johnny and Gayle really turned a simple movie theater into almost an art movement. I know that it has literally changed my life. It’s given me the chance to fulfill every dream I ever had growing up. I could get to be Houdini or Alice Cooper or the horror host I had always wanted to see. And no matter what happens in the future, if I wind up making the greatest movie ever made, I don’t need any more than this: I saw a kid dressed as Professor Morte for Halloween. My mother passed away recently, and I’m so glad that she got a chance to see me spread my bat wings and fly with the Spookshow. And I really have Johnny and Gayle to thank for this.”

Professor Morte (Shane Morton). Photo courtesy of Shane Morton.

And what of the future? “We’d always hoped that someone with the financial backing could come in and turn the Plaza Theatre around. It seemed like an impossible dream. And then suddenly, it all seemed to fall together at the right time. Johnny and Gayle had just had a baby, and that’s without a doubt their most important job right there! Suddenly, Mike Furlinger came in and was in the position to deliver everything anyone involved with the Plaza could hope for. New digital projectors, new seats, new carpeting…now, I like the old seats and the old carpeting. I like stuff that’s old and weird. But you have to keep moving with the times, and what he’s going to bring to the Plaza is going to help the theater thrive. The future looks really exciting. The Plaza will be able to show first-run films along with the art-house movies they’re known for and keep delivering the funky stuff that all of us bring to the table.”

After the Rejs turn the keys over to Furlinger at the end of this month and renovations begin, it may be a while before we can see Morte’s handiwork on the Plaza stage. So come out and celebrate. Celebrate that the world didn’t end on Friday. Celebrate that the solstice has passed and a new dawn is rising. That Santa’s on his way. That a new year is on the horizon. That one of the best films in the Universal Horror cycle is screening in a lovely digital restoration. That Professor Morte and his merry band of misfits are taking the stage. And celebrate the legacy of the hard work and spirit of Jonathan and Gayle Rej. Raise your tubs of popcorn in salute, boils and ghouls.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Dracula, A.D. 2011: Chris Love’s Hard-Rockin’ Harker

Posted on: Feb 9th, 2011 By:

Children of the night, rejoice. The Little 5 Points Rockstar Orchestra is driving a stake into your preconceptions of rock opera as a dead-and-buried art form and putting the bite back into vampire lore at 7 Stages this week with HAUS VON DRACUL, PART 1. The production marks another collaboration between long-time Atlanta musician Rob Thompson (Ghost Story, Blistered), also owner of Java Lords Coffee House & Bar, who also plays the Count, and horror Renaissance man Shane Morton (Silver Scream Spookshow) who also created savage set design and make-up for the Rockstar Orchestra’s A KRAMPUS CHRISTMAS at 7 Stages last December.

Chris Love as Jonathan Harker in Haus Von Dracul, Part 1. Photo Credit: Nicole Boroski

ATLRetro caught up with guitarist Chris Love, who plays hero Jonathan Harker, this week, to dig up more about HAUS VON DRACUL and why a vampire rock opera makes for the perfect Valentine-week date.

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