July 16, 2007
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
The beginning of the 40s brought many difficult times for RKO Studios, as after the commercial failure of Orson Welles' films (worsened by Hearst newspaper chain's attacks over "Citizen Kane") and other artistically ambitious movies, the studio was facing bankruptcy and extinction. However, the studio would find a relief for its problems in its B pictures division, specially in the unit commanded by producer Val Lewton, who soon after his appointment as head of RKO's horror unit, released what would be RKO's greatest hit of 1942: "Cat People". Directed by French filmmaker Jacques Tourneur, "Cat People" revolutionized the horror genre with its subtle atmospheric style and the inclusion of psychological horror. After the enormous success of "Cat People", Lewton and Tourneur began working on their next horror movie: the noir-influence "I Walked with a Zombie".
In "I Walked with a Zombie", Frances Dee plays Betsy Connell, a recently graduated Canadian nurse who travels from Ottawa to the Caribbean after being hired to take care of a mental patient in the island of St. Sebastian. In her trip, she meets Paul Holland (Tom Conway), owner of the sugar cane plantation where she is going to live, and soon she discovers that her patient is his wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon), who has been in a catatonic state after contracting a fever at St. Sebastian. Intrigued by her patient's condition, Betsy attempts to find out a cure for Jessica working with Dr. Maxwell (James Bell), but her lack of success makes her begin to wonder if the rumors about voodoo and zombies that circulate among the island's population are true after all. As she goes deeper into the intrigues at the plantation, she'll discover the horrible true behind Jessica's condition.
Loosely based on Charlotte Brontë's classic novel, "Jane Eyre", the film's story was conceived by Val Lewton and Inez Wallace and further developed by Ardel Wray and the legendary Curt Siodmak (of "The Wolf Man" fame). It is Siodmak's style the one that is felt the most though the movie, as like most of his best horror stories, "I Walked with a Zombie" has that mixture of horror and melodrama deeply rooted in the complex relationships between his characters and the way they interact with each other. Playing with elements of tragedy and melodrama, Siodmak builds up an intelligent Gothic horror story where sadness and decay are the dominant themes, and that keeps the subtle ambiguous style of "Cat People". Like his screenplay for "The Wolf Man", "I Walked with a Zombie" is filled with extremely good dialogs that certainly give the film a personality of its own.
However, where "I Walked with a Zombie" truly excels is in the directing department, where Jacques Tourneur once again shows his enormous talent behind the camera and proves that B-movies can be highly artistic too. With an excellent work of cinematography by the experienced J. Roy Hunt, Tourneur expands on the style he developed in "Cat People" and creates in the perfect hybrid of Film-Noir and horror movie in "I Walked with a Zombie", where he gives a morbid ambiguity to Siodmak's script. Highly atmospheric and even surreal, the film showcases a wonderful use of light and shadows that increases the feeling of dread and decay that surrounds the story. Tourneur's use of music and sound is another of the elements that make this movie remarkable, as Roy Webb's score is impressively haunting and adds a lot of power to the film.
The work done by the cast in "I Walked with a Zombie" is very effective, with most of the actors delivering excellent performances in their respective roles. Frances Dee is remarkable as nurse Betsy Connell, believably conveying the necessary innocence and naiveté of her character without making it clichéd. As Paul Hollan, Tom Conway delivers a restrained and subtle performance, which suits his troubled character perfectly and adds a lot to the plantation's mystery. However, the highlights of the film are definitely James Ellison and Edith Barrett, the first one giving a very convincing role as Paul's alcoholic half-brother and Mrs. Barrett delivering the film's best performance as the mother of the two, managing to shine despite her limited role. Finally, Christine Gordon is simply gorgeous as Jessica Holland, the alluring beauty who may be possessed by unseen forces.
Being a subtle and almost melancholic film, "I Walked with a Zombie" is definitely less bombastic than its title (which Val Lewton hated) may suggest. And this misconception is probably the movie's biggest flaw, as while the movie is decidedly dark and morbid, it has nothing in common with the modern day concept of "zombie film" as reinvented by George Romero in 1968 (with "Night of the Living Dead"). Tourneur's film has more to do with the original Caribbean voodoo folklore about zombies than with flesh-eating mobs of living corpses, so those expecting something similar to the works of Romero and Fulci will be sorely disappointed. In this aspect, "I Walked with a Zombie" has more to do with Victor Halperin's classic from the 30s, "White Zombie", as not only both share the same background, but also have almost the same Gothic visual style.
While definitely not as influential as "Cat People", personally I find "I Walked with a Zombie" to be the best movie among the ones done by Tourneur and Lewton, thanks to its beautiful visuals and the power of Siodmak's story. A powerful and haunting story of horror and suspense, this classic from the 40s is a definitive must-see, not only for fans of horror and film noir, but really for anyone willing to watch classic cinema at its best.
Buy "I Walked with a Zombie" (1943)