I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

“Because I loved him, I felt I had to restore her to him — make her what she had been before.”

Synopsis:
A young nurse (Frances Dee) sent to the West Indies to care for the mentally ill wife (Christine Gordon) of a plantation owner (Paul Holland) soon finds herself in love with Holland, and — for Holland’s sake — eager to help cure Gordon at any cost.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary labels this “follow up to Cat People” — produced for RKO by Val Lewton, and “beautifully directed” by Jacques Tourneur — the “most poetic of horror films”. Directly inspired by Jane Eyre (and preceding Jean Rhys’ post-colonial follow-up novel Wide Sargasso Sea by more than 20 years), the richly layered film is “set up like a Greek tragedy”, in which “a house has been ripped asunder by infidelity, meddling in-laws, sibling rivalry, and calling on pagan gods to carry out selfish bidding”; it even includes a “one-man Greek chorus” in Sir Lancelot, a calypso singer who fills us (and Dee) in on the family’s past troubles through a cleverly written ditty. (“Ah, woe! Ah, me! Shame and sorrow for the family.”) Peary notes that “the lyrical quality of the long silent passages” — most famously “Dee and Gordon’s nocturnal walk through the mysterious woods” — contribute towards this film’s status as possibly “the most visually impressive of Lewton’s films”. Certainly, the “shadows, the lighting, the music, [and] the exotic settings contribute to make this one of the masterpieces of the genre” — a “beautiful nightmare” which lingers in one’s memory.

As in Cat People, the film’s horror elements here are left up to viewers’ imaginations: is Gordon insane, or “is her zombie-like state the result of a voodoo curse”? Other than a few highly suggestive scenes near the end, the answer is entirely unclear throughout, and “we never find out for sure”. What we “come to believe”, however, as Peary notes, is “that there is just as much validity in believing in the powers of voodoo as there is in believing God will answer prayers”. To that end, Lewton noticeably “does not belittle the island blacks by mocking their beliefs, customs, and religious practices”, given that it’s the whites who “wallow in confusion and terror”. As Chris Dashiell of CineScene.com writes, “Although the film occupies the European stance towards the black ‘other’ that was always assumed in commercial films at that time, Tourneur is much more sensitive in this regard than one might expect.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Frances Dee as Betsy
  • Edith Barrett as Mrs. Rand
  • Effectively creepy voodoo imagery
  • J. Roy Hunt’s cinematography
  • Good use of sound and music

Must See?
Yes, as an acknowledged classic by Tourneur. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “I Walked With a Zombie (1943)”

  1. Must-see and worthy of repeat viewings.

    Working with a better script/plot than ‘The Leopard Man’ (which I recently revisited), Tourneur serves up an intriguing blend of unsettling atmosphere and tortured emotion,

    It’s not long before we are delivered to an isolated spot ripe with tension, and the locale is a perfect metaphor for the dark & confusing allure of wanton desire – an urge that leaves things somewhat dead in its wake.

    The film has remarkably effective design and tone and, once its rhythm suggests something eerie and inevitable, the film’s pull feels appropriately hypnotic.

    All told, a satisfying tale – and the calming addition of Ms. Dee is an added plus.

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