"I Walked with a Zombie" Review
It's easy to discard zombie movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The vast majority are rooted in not-so-subtle racism, where anything negative and murderous comes from Africa in the form of Haitian voodoo freaks.
However, I Walked with a Zombie, even though it cannot help to be condescending towards Afro-descendant culture, feels way different. It's more elegant, intelligent, darker and certainly very aware of the horrors of slavery.
The story is told by Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse who is hired by sugar plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway) to take care of his sick wife Jessica (Christine Gordon) in his beautiful tropical mansion on the Caribbean Island of Saint Sebastian.
Since the beginning of the trip, Betsy is warned many times by Paul about not being fooled by appearances and superstitious tales. Upon arrival, Betsy meets the rest of the people who live there, including Paul's half-brother, Wesley Rand (James Ellison), Maid Alma (Theresa Harris) and the mother of the two brothers, Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett).
Slowly and progressively, Betsy discovers a rarefied atmosphere around Jessica. The town people, very superstitious and faithful to the voodoo culture, generate rumors (sometimes even in the form of traditional calypso songs) about how Jessica got a mysterious voodoo curse after being involved in a love triangle between Paul and Wesley.
The horror of I Walked with a Zombie doesn't lie precisely in the undead. The zombies of this universe don't eat brains, nor are they violent. They are merely human carcasses that wander without free will, usually always at the mercy of the humans that surround them and created them. That is if they're zombies in the first place. We never know for sure.
The true horror of I Walked with a Zombie lies on the feeling of hopelessness that follows the death of a loved one. It's a portrait of that feeling where everything is dark and horrible and light is hidden from all aspects of your life.
The direction of Jacques Tourneur and the production of Val Lewton make a sincere effort to fill the piece with clever details that reinforce that motif of "death in life".
That's why Paul Holland is the true protagonist of this story, even when it's Betsy who narrates the adventure.
Paul is as emo as you can get. Immersed in his eternal grief that can't get any type of closure (because, you know, his wife is still walking around), Paul has a dark and decadent vision of life. Nothing beautiful is what it seems, because it hides death and fear.
This is how Paul releases a pair of gems in the dialogues, such as:
“It's easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer. Everything seems beautiful because you do not understand. Those flying fish, they are not leaping for joy, they are jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay. Everything good dies here. Even the stars.”
Or my personal favorite, when Paul explains to Betsy why the maid cried of sadness when giving birth, using a creepy sculpture of Saint Sebastian in the process:
“It was once the figurehead of a slaveship. That is where our people came from. From the misery and pain of slavery. For generations, they found life a burden. That's why they still weep when a child is born & make merry at a burial... I have told you, Miss Connell: this is a sad place.”
What's Your Rating For I Walked with a Zombie?
As you can see, I Walked with a Zombie uses the Caribbean Island to better frame its motif on the contrast between happiness and misfortune. The inhabitants of Saint Sebastian live in a tropical paradise, with fresh food and calypso, but their life is marked by the tragedy of slavery, which makes them take refuge in legendary rituals about a limbo between life and death.
Of course, even being quite "woke", this movie is from 1943 and cannot avoid exoticizing the Afro-descendant, Caribbean culture. And even when the treatment of the rituals is quite elegant and engaging, characters like Carrefour (Darby Jones), a tall, eerie and half-naked zombie—we assume—black man with popped eyes, have the latent racism of that time.
I Walked with a Zombie is also very adamant in its quest to leave the story ambiguous. It's necessary to reinforce the narrative limbo. Duality is a big part of this tale. We never know exactly if Jessica's current condition is due to the deterioration of her spinal cord due to tropical fever or a voodoo ritual that brought her back to life.
The character of Mrs. Rand carries that dualism to the extreme. She has to deal with two children from two different parents. In different moments of the story, she despises voodoo "magic". In others, she admits "using it" in her favor to trick local people into using traditional medicine. Then she even admits the veracity of the voodoo ritual. She's totally unreliable, and the main reason why the thematic ambiguity of the movie remains intact.
From the proto-zombie era, I Walked with a Zombie is undoubtedly one of the essentials.
Zombie Movie Details
Title: I Walked with a Zombie
Release Year: 1943
Director(s): Jacques Tourneur
Writer(s): Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray
Actors: Frances Dee, Tom Conway, James Ellison, a.o.
Runtime: 1 hour 9 minutes
© 2019 Sam Shepards