Retro Review: I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is one of those miraculous little films (a bare 69 minutes) that exists almost as much in the mind of the viewer as on the screen. Its story is actually relatively simple, but its treatment is sophisticated, creating an engaging, mature drama that hypnotically draws the audience into its shadowy world. But the simplicity of that world is deceptive, filled with contradictions and phenomenon that can never quite be explained to a certainty. Both science and superstition offer interpretations, and characters who adopt one or the other viewpoint believe they have understanding, but the film refuses to elevate one worldview over the other, inviting the audience to adopt an open-minded sense of wonder in which both are possible. The result could have been frustrating, even foolish. But I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE presents its mysteries with a shimmering beauty rarely seen in a horror film. There is no crude horror, no blatant shocks; instead, the film is drenched in a rich atmosphere of light and shadow. This is a film that wants to ellicit not screams but shivers as it takes you on its journey into the heart of human darkness – a journey that takes on the semblance of a waking dream, not quite an outright nightmare but one that provides a glimpse of dark mysteries that thwart the modern mind’s capacity to dispell superstition with science.

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE took its name from an article by Inez Wallace, an allegedly first-person account of voodoo practises in the West Indies, which was actually a second-hand re-hash of material from William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island. RKO even hired screenwriter Curt Siodmak, who had crafted Universal’s 1941 hit The Wolf Man, to craft a traditional horror tale from the source material. In response, Lewton had the script rewritten by Ardell Wray and delivered a film that he famously called “Jane Ayre in the West Indies.”

Like the previous year’s CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who brought an impeccable sense of visual style to the production. Tourneur’s stock in trade was the use of line, light, and shadow to create a dreamy atmosphere suggesting magic and wonder at every turn, even when nothing fantastic was actually on screen. Working with his cinematographer, he crafted images filled with opposing sections of darkness and light, visually embodying the film’s themes, which emphasized the conflict between reality and fantasy, science and superstition, magic and medicine. On a more basic level, Tourner knew – probably better than any of the other directors who worked for Lewton – how to engender fear though a clever compilation of atmospheric elements, using suggestion to create a sense of dreadful anticipation in the audience, while seldoms showing anything overtly terrifying. For decades afterward, it was fashionable for high-brow critics to proclaim that the most frightening horror is unseen instead of explicit; whether or not this theory always holds true, it definitely worked in the Lewton-Tourneur collaborations, and it is no surprise that their films have earned accolades from critics quick to dismiss the horror genre as a whole.

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE eschews the cliches associated with horror movie heroes and heroines up to that time, who tended to be bland, boring, and too good to be true. The result is a rare example of a horror film that is interesting even when it is not horrifying.

The film’s major characters all have shadings of gray; most have dark sides and dark secrets that prevent them from emerging as truly heroic in a conventioal sense, and yet they all earn our sympathy to some degree. Paul Holland (Conway) is arrogant and cruel, but there is something tortured and sad about him. His half-brother Wesley Rand (Ellison) is a self-pitying drunk, but he has his share of charm when sober, and we come to understand the pressures that have driven him to drink. Their mother, Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), seems warm and wonderful, but she turns out to be a guilty vengeful woman whose curse (she believes) turned her daughter in law into a zombie.

Nurse Connell (Francis Dee) stands between the film's two 'zombies': Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) and Carrefour (Darby Jones).The sly joke of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is that, despite the insistence of the title, there may not be any zombies in it at all; in short, this may be a monster movie without a conventional monster. There are, however, two potential candidates for zombies: Jessica Holland and Carrefour. Whether or not they are truly the living dead, neither of these “zombies” fully captures the true horror of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, which is playing a game far more sophisticated than the traditional horror film. Typically, horror stories of the period were fashioned around skeptical characters who were forced to admit that “there are such things” as vampires, werewolves, zombies, and other monsters that go bump in the night. The Lewton horror productions played around with this formula, presenting rational characters confronting situations that could not be fixed by modern science, forcing them to look elsewhere for answers. The difference was that the protagonist’s conversion to belief was portrayed as a recidivist slip into superstition. Therein lies the true horror of many Val Lewton productions: not a monster on the outside but a belief in monsters driving one to madness.

Over the decades, Val Lewton’s cycle of horror films has come to be highly regarded, not only by genre enthusiasts but by mainstream critics well, and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is often the mostly highly regarded of the group. In fact, accolades for the film fly so fast and furious that its reputation as a brilliant horror film can set up a crushing disappointment for viewers expecting a heaping dose of melodramatic blood-and-thunder, filled with the walking dead.

DVD DETAILS

Warner Brothers’ DVD double bills I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE BODY SNATCHER on a single, one-sided disc. The transfer is sharp and clear, but the print was not in perfect uncondition. There is some speckling and scratching on the print, noticable during the boat voyage in Chapter 2: “No Beauty Here.” There are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Sound is mono only, the original audio track and a commentary track by film historian Stephen Jones and novelist-critic Kim Newman.

The film is divided into twenty chapter stops, identified by chapter titles and frame grabs that do not necessarily pinpoint the beginning of the chapter. For example, the aforementioned Chapter 2 features an image from the boat, where the “No beauty here” line is spoken, but the chapter actually begins with a long shot of Nurse Connell (Francis Dee) and the zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones) walking along the beach while Connell’s voice-over provides the opening narration; this is followed by Connell’s job interview in an office; only then do we dissolve to the Connell on her voyage to the Caribbean.

The commentary by Jones and Newman is notable for their shared enthusiasm. Their love for the film comes through loud and clear from the very beginning, but they also step back long enough to provide some interesting behind the scenes information, regarding the articles that inspired the film (which in turn were inspired by the non-fiction book The Magic Island). Most interesting, they reference the original draft of the screenplay and note several places where the finished film differs, always for the better. (How often is that the case?)

If there is a drawback, it is that Jones and Newman’s mutal enthusiasm occasionally overwhelms their better judgment. At one point, they come down heavily in favor of a supernatural explanation of the film, scoffing at unnamed critics and commentators who claim the story’s events can be explained rationally. In truth, the simple either-or formulation is not a good one to apply to I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. As John McCarty wrote in “The Parallel Worlds of Jacques Tourner” (CFQ 2:4), the film offers:

…the supernatural as a synonym for imagination and the rational as a synonym for reality, implying two parallel worlds which are in conflict with each other, constantly crossing each other’s boundaries. It is this concept, combined with Tourneur’s significantly documentary approach to his material, which makes I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE not just another ‘horror’ movie but a truly occult film.”

In I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, director Tourneur walks in the shadowy realm separating the two worlds. To definitely state that there is a supernatural element is to rob the of of the dreamlike power that derives from presenting two distinct interpretations of reality, either of which could be valid. Like THE INNOCENTS, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE thrives on ambiguity that teases the mind, refusing to submit to reduced to a simple, definite solution.

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (RKO, 1943). Produced by Val Lewton. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Screenplay by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, based upon the article by Inez Wallace. Cast: Francis Dee, Tom Conway, James Ellison, Edith Barrett, james Bell, Christine Gordon, Sir lancelot, Darby Jones, Jeni LeGon, Teresa Harris.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Steve Biodrowski owns and operates Hollywood Gothique. Since graduating from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema, Steve has worked as a film critic, script analyst, journalist, and interviewer. As a film journalist, his work has appeared in Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage (in France) and The Dark Side (in England). He served as the West Coast Editor of Cinefantastique magazine in the 1990s, then worked as the Vice President of Editorial Content at Fandom.com and, more recently, as the Executive Editor at Cinescape Online. He is currently the Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online, the website incarnation of Cinefantastique magazine.

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