I Walked with a Zombie
Forget about half-rotten zombies rising from their graves to prey on the living. Long before that trope was established a zombie was a Caribbean voodoo phenomenon, a brain dead person who could be animated, but was lost to this world. That does not sound half as scary and gory as a “modern” zombie, but presented by Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur in 1943 this is plenty mysterious to make an interesting film.
So far my only previous Lewton/Tourneur experience is “Cat People”. I liked that one for its cinematography above all else and “I Walked with a Zombie” follows right into those footsteps. Except that while it is hard to compete with the pool scene or the quiet, dark alley “I Walked with a Zombie” compensates with a mysterious and very dark family intrigue.
Our proxy is the nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee). She is the narrating outsider who in the function of a nurse is being stationed at the Holland plantation on the Caribbean island San Sebastian. The wife of the plantation owner is sick and she is hired to take care of her. Through Betsy’s unbiased eyes we get to know the dysfunctional Holland/Rand family and the more than a little superstitious black population on the island. Betsy is challenged professionally, morally and not least spiritually by this encounter. What is reality and what is imagination and can firm belief in the imaginative make it real?
While the zombie and voodoo issue certainly is compelling and loaded with suggestion it is actually just a backdrop to the real drama within the Holland/Rand family. It consists of four members: the two half-brothers Paul Holland (Tom Conway) with British manners, speech and upbringing and Wesley Rand (James Ellison) with ditto American. Their mother Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett) and Paul’s unresponsive wife Jessica (Christine Gordon). From the opening we sense something is really odd here. Everybody is on edge and in the true spirit of noir nobody are what they appear to be. Just like the voodoo practice there is something beneath the surface, something ominous and powerful.
No wonder Betsy is caught off-balance and struggle to navigate in this environment.
Lewton and Tourneur (exactly who I should credit I am not sure) must be complemented for not taking a position on who is right and who is wrong. Maybe voodoo works and maybe it is just suggestive power. Maybe Paul is the hero, maybe the villain. The director is not a judge but simply the conveyor of Betsy’s narration. This is the same method as was used in “Cat People” (except for the narration) and it is very effective. It would have been easy to take sides. Let us know that this entire voodoo practice is bollocks or bring proof that it is very real. Instead it performs a balancing act between dream and reality and becomes an analogy to the world of the Holland/Rand family. Jessica is not just a zombie, she is also a mental ghost haunting the family.
I mentioned the cinematography and although the story is compelling it is the cinematography which is the real star. Those night scenes are great. Walking through the cane fields in the moon light and suddenly there is a tall, almost naked man with the most insanely staring, yet empty eyes popping out of the dark. Not moving, just staring. Or the voodoo ceremonies with drums and chanting and trancelike dancing. It is dark and ominous, but not really evil. Just very different. A portal into a different reality, like a dream is. Jessica as well. She is not frightening per se, she is not actually doing anything, but sleepwalking, but her empty expression is suggestive off immense loss simply by the lack of any response. She is truly lost and that is conveyed very well.
Also I have to mention the nice tough with the reference to San Sebastian. That is not just the name of the island, but also a statue on the Holland plantation. Saint Sebastian was a saint who felt no pain but was slain with multiple arrows, like a voodoo doll or the torment of the Holland/Rand family. They could have chosen no better symbol.
I liked “I Walked with a Zombie” more than I hoped I would. This may not be the biggest production ever or the deepest analysis or even the scariest horror film, but it is a beautiful representative of old school noir horror and I certainly felt the darkness creep in on me. More from the masterly wrought cinematography than the story itself.