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Reviews

I Walked with a Zombie

I Walked with a Zombie

Jacques Tourneur

USA, 1943

Credits

Review by Sarah Boslaugh

Posted on 08 July 2008

Source Warner Bros. DVD

Val Lewton is well-loved among film aficionados today for the series of B pictures he produced for RKO in the 1940s. These films, with lurid titles like Curse of the Cat People and The Leopard Man, are notable because they avoid the usual horror film clichés in favor of psychological suspense, interesting characters, and striking visuals. The best of these, in my opinion, is Lewton’s second film, I Walked with a Zombie. It has all the Lewton trademarks, and is also remarkable for the respect it demonstrates for its Afro-Caribbean characters and their culture, and its clear acknowledgement of the corrupting heritage of slavery.

There are no monsters in I Walked with a Zombie, and despite the title (which was selected by RKO before production began) it’s not entirely clear that there are any zombies either. What you get in place of marauding hordes of flesh-eaters is a taut story based in part on Jane Eyre about young Canadian nurse Betsy Connell, who accepts a job taking care of Jessica Holland, disabled wife of sugar planter Paul Holland, on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. Jessica became “mindless” after an illness accompanied by a high fever, leaving her in a state akin to waking sleep: she is physically healthy and can move about, but is unable to communicate and has no will of her own. This leads the Afro-Caribbean community of Saint Sebastian, who practice the religion of Voudou (or, more generically, voodoo), to suspect that she is a zombie.

Other major roles are Paul’s half-brother Wesley Rand, Mrs. Rand, mother of Paul and Wesley, and Dr. Maxwell who supervises Jessica’s care. Despite enjoying the wealth created by slave labor and perpetuated by the racial and class system of the island, all is not well in the familial home at Fort Holland. The background to their troubles is provided by a song sung in a village café by the calypso singer Sir Lancelot:

There was a family who lived on the isle
Of Saint Sebastian a long long while
The head of the family was a Holland man
And the younger brother his name was Rand.

Ah woe, ah me
Shame and sorrow for the family
Ah woe, ah me
Shame and sorrow for the family.

The Holland man he kept in a tower
A wife as pretty as a bit white flower
She saw the brother and she stole his heart
And that’s how the badness and the trouble start.

At this point Sir Lancelot is interrupted: realizing that Wesley and Betsy were within earshot, he makes elaborate apologies while maintaining his dignity. After Wesley has passed out from drink, Sir Lancelot returns to complete the song for Betsy:

The wife and the brother they want to go
But the Holland man, he tell them no
The wife fall down and the evil came
And it burnt her mind in the fever flame.

Ah woe, ah me
Shame and sorrow for the family
Ah woe, ah me
Shame and sorrow for the family.

Her eyes are empty and she cannot talk
And a nurse has come to make her walk
The brothers are lonely and the nurse is young
And now you must see that my song is sung.

This sequence is not only a nice piece of exposition, but indicates the complex social relationships on the island. There are two societies, a ruling white minority and the black majority, and the black society knows a lot more about the white society than is true in reverse. In addition, blacks publicly defer to white people, no matter how dissolute or disgraceful the latter’s behavior, without necessarily believing the white version of events. The blacks also make distinctions among white people and recognize Betsy as a potential ally, despite her skin color. In fact, Betsy’s willingness to cross racial boundaries in her efforts to cure Jessica upsets the delicate balance of the Holland household and leads to the film’s resolution.

No one ever watched a Val Lewton film for the plot, and I Walked with a Zombie is no exception. There are numerous holes in the script, beginning with the question of why the Hollands would send to Canada for a nurse if they wanted to keep their family secrets hidden. Even the heritage of Saint Sebastian is not clearly established: script references to the United States were removed, the fact that Betsy is Canadian suggests a British connection, while names on the island (Ti-Joseph, Ti-Victor) suggest a French background, as does the central role played by Voudou (which is most identified with Haiti).

But none of that matters, because Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur (the two also produced Cat People and The Leopard Man) concentrate on what they do best: creating atmosphere and suspense through suggestion. You won’t care why Jessica is walking up a stone staircase in the middle of the night, or why the loss of Betsy’s protective “voodoo patch” is shown but not paid off: the scenes look so great, and create such a sense of mystery and wonder, that the occasional suspension of logic is of little importance to the viewer.

Lewton took the representation of Voudou rituals seriously, hiring LeRoy Antoine, an expert on Haitian music and Voudou, to supervise those aspects of the film. The credits reference a series of magazine articles by Inez Wallace as the basis for the story, and the script cites a Life magazine article as the basis for scenes at the houmfort, or place of worship. Lewton seems to have gotten the main points right: many aspects of the Voudou rituals portrayed in I Walked with a Zombie are similar to those later documented by Maya Deren in the years 1947-1951.

B movies have usually have B talent to work with, but Lewton’s ability to see beyond race allowed him to get the most out of the cast available to him. This is most obvious in his treatment of the black characters, who avoid cliché and are far more substantial than is typical of Hollywood films of the day. For instance, he allowed Theresa Harris (who has 79 film credits as an actor, mostly for unnamed and uncredited roles as maids, plus a few more important roles in all-black films) to display her ample talents in the role of Alma, a female servant to the Holland family. Harris’ character rises to the level of a supporting player and allows a glimpse of her radiance and assurance which found no place in a Hollywood film industry which relegated black women to bit parts.

Similarly, Sir Lancelot – portrayed by Lancelot Victor Edward Pinard, a real-life calypso singer whom Harry Belafonte credits as a major influence – is an extremely self-possessed character who clearly knows how to navigate among the black and white worlds. He maintains his dignity while delivering his apology in the cafe, and does not hesitate to return to finish his song (with an edge of menace) as soon as Wesley is out of the picture. In fact, Lewton treats all his characters with respect: none are played for cheap laughs and no one wears rags: even the most minor characters are self-assured, appropriately dressed and well-groomed.

I Walked with a Zombie also makes several direct references to slavery. The driver who brings Betsy to Fort Holland tells Betsy that the figure of Saint Sebastian displayed in the garden at Fort Holland as the figurehead of a slave ship, which he describes as “the enormous boat that brought the long-ago fathers and the long-ago mothers of us all, chained to the bottom of the boat.” When Betsy remarks “They brought you to a beautiful place, didn’t they?” his reply smoothes over the potential conflict and acknowledges their relative social positions while not deferring to her version of events: “If you say, miss. If you say.” Later, when a baby is born to Alma’s sister, Betsy asks why the servants are crying. Paul explains that the custom dates back to the time of slavery, when the lives of the slaves were so miserable that they cried at a birth and danced at a funeral.

I Walked with a Zombie is a horror film for grownups, which presents a complex picture of human relations and offers multiple explanations for events portrayed without definitively endorsing any of them. Frequently it is not even clear whether something is real or imaginary, or whose version of events should be accepted. Even the film’s conclusion, although satisfying, leaves room for interpretation about what really happened and why.

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