In its 69 minutes, I Walked with a Zombie packs a dense and fascinating allegory for the damning effects of slavery and the tenuous coexistence of cultures. Like many of the B-grade horror films produced by Val Lewton at RKO Studios, it began life with a certain set of parameters and expectations: saddled with the title I Walked with a Zombie, Lewton was tasked with adapting an American Weekly Magazine article about plantation workers in Haiti who are turned into “zombies” through rampant drug use, an insidious form of ongoing oppression. (One imagines RKO execs were mostly attracted to the title; such a storyline would have been hard to get by the Hollywood Hays Code at that time.) Instead, Lewton decided to make, as he called it, the “West Indies Jane Eyre,” and concocted, with screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, a story about the coma-stricken wife of a plantation owner and the Canadian nurse who believes that voodoo magic may help cure her. There are no actual zombies in the film and it’s often closer to romantic melodrama than horror (like the Brontë novel that inspired it), but these numerous conflicting forces make for Lewton & Company’s most haunting film.
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Producer: Val Lewton
Writers: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray, based on the article by Inez Wallace
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Editor: Mark Robson
Cast: Frances Dee, Tom Conway, James Ellison, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Theresa Harris, Sir Lancelot
Runtime: 69 minutes
US Distributor: RKO Radio Pictures
US Release Date: April 30, 1943
It begins with a dreamlike image that still won’t make sense given later plot developments: a man and woman walking along the shore, their seaside stroll existing outside the narrative, a preemptive fantasy of sorts. A voiceover begins, offered by a Canadian nurse named Betsy (Frances Dee), who relates how she in fact “walked with a zombie.” As the flashback story begins, Betsy is being interviewed for a nurse position on the Caribbean island of San Sebastian; the wife of a sugar plantation owner, it turns out, has been struck nearly unconscious by tropical fever, trapped in a neverending daze. “Do you believe in witchcraft?,” the interviewer asks an incredulous Betsy, who shrugs off the question by saying that she used to as a little girl.
She feels differently, it seems, when she arrives on San Sebastian, an island featuring a small white population and many descendants of African slaves. Betsy learns about the island’s history during a ride to the sugar plantation owned by the Hollands, the wealthy white family that first brought slaves to the island generations ago. In their opulent courtyard stands the foreboding figurehead of an old slave ship that the islanders call Ti-Misery; the figurehead is of a man screaming in anguish being pelted with arrows, carved from dark wood. I Walked with a Zombie thus offers one of the most striking symbols for the trauma of slavery in American cinema, plunked down on the estate of the white imperialists who brought slaves here in the first place, a constant reminder of their inhumanity.
The Holland family is a romantic melodrama in slow motion. The plantation owner, Paul (Tom Conway), is a cynical, self-loathing man who devotes himself to the sugar business because we sense that he’d go mad otherwise; on the night that Betsy sails to San Sebastian, savoring the moonlight skipping over the water, Paul reminds her that what looks like beauty is really a million little screams of pain. Paul’s half-brother Wesley (James Ellison) is an alcoholic who drinks to distract himself from his own tropical purgatory. Their mother, Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), volunteers at the local hospital, and we get the sense that she’s trying to distance herself from her sons and the family plantation. Eventually, we learn that Wesley and Paul’s wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon), had fallen in love and were about to run away together when Paul stopped them; it was then that the “tropical fever” set in, quite suspiciously. Indeed, on her first night in San Sebastian, Betsy hears a woman crying in a dark, ominous lighthouse tower; she investigates and finds Jessica wandering around in her white bathrobe, eyes vacant and staring straight ahead, an image more of a possessed zombie than a convalescent struck by fever.
When all other attempted treatments fail (including an insulin shot that could potentially kill Jessica), Betsy is told by the Hollands’ Afro-Caribbean maid, Alma (Theresa Harris), that a woman in a similar condition was recently cured by voodoo magic. Desperate to save Jessica for the sake of her gloomy employer, Paul (with whom Betsy has somewhat absurdly fallen in love), Betsy decides to take Jessica deep through the cane fields, past a crossroads guarded by an eerie Carrefour (Darby Jones, introduced to the audience through a gorgeously foreboding shot), and to the houmfort where a traditional voodoo ritual is taking place (and which Jessica will soon be a part of).
The scenes of voodoo ceremonies and vacant, imposing, black-skinned “zombies” are certainly not free of exoticism; as the marketing for the film emphasized, audiences were supposed to be frightened by the prospect of these white women intermingling with the island’s dark forces. (One poster featured the tall Carrefour cradling a prostrate Jessica in his arms, his black skin vibrant against a blazing red background.) And yet, the movie shows a genuine interest in understanding and portraying voodoo as a legitimate religion and culture. Lewton and his writers carried out diligent research on voodoo practices, and elements like the Carrefour and houmfort—not to mention specific ritual elements like a real Haitian folk song and a black-clad sabreur who performs an elaborate dance—are based on Haitian voodoo. Especially in contrast to White Zombie (1932) and some of the jungle adventures of the 1930s, which depict traditional African “rituals” as indiscriminate shrieking and dancing (the primitive savage stereotype so noxiously prevalent in early cinema), I Walked with a Zombie portrays the voodoo ceremonies at length and with a palpable respect for their artistry and specificity.
More vilified by far in I Walked with a Zombie is the Holland family and the legacy of slavery they’ve wrought. While it’s unfortunate that the film is told almost exclusively from the perspective of its white characters, it’s clear that a drastic and disruptive tension exists between the white and Black inhabitants of the island. This is made overt late in the film, with the furor that arises over Jessica’s visit to the houmfort and the panic of the Hollands when the Carrefour penetrates the estate, intending to abscond with Jessica’s body. And while it would have been even more powerful to observe the shattering effects of slavery on those of African descent, it’s striking nonetheless that the Hollands all seem subsumed with guilt and shame by the horrible legacy they’ve brought to San Sebastian: Paul, for one, believes that he’s undeserving of happiness and destroys every good relationship that he might have, including his marriage to Jessica (he claims that he’s responsible for sending her into her current state) and his growing love for Betsy. That figurehead in the courtyard, Ti-Misery, serves as a constant reminder of the Hollands’ barbarism, and Jessica’s seemingly incurable fever seems to be a result of the Hollands’ inability (or unwillingness) to understand and respect the exploited culture that surrounds them.
The character of Mrs. Rand is especially interesting in this regard. Without wanting to give away one of the plot’s most shocking twists, we come to realize that the matriarch of the family has co-opted the island’s voodoo culture to a surprising extent. Following the onset of Jessica’s fever, Mrs. Rand claims that she was possessed by a voodoo god and is similarly convinced that voodoo can cure Jessica’s zombie state—a strange opinion for the widow of a Christian missionary. (Indeed, the movie seems to imply that this form of medicine might be effective when Western medicine fails.) At the same time, Mrs. Rand is responsible for exploiting voodoo to convince the Black islanders to adopt Western sanitary and health care practices, using the beliefs of the local culture to control and assimilate them, as often happened in colonized countries. Is Mrs. Rand a sign of the melding of cultures, a white American who comes to realize the power of supposedly “primitive” beliefs? Or is she an oppressor who elicits obedience from the Black islanders in insidious ways? It’s never made clear, and that ambiguity asks a multitude of difficult questions about the coexistence of white/colonizing and Black/enslaved/oppressed populations in Caribbean countries and elsewhere. (Even the brief appearance of a Calypso singer played by Lewton regular Sir Lancelot suggests the ways in which the culture of a displaced people can counteract colonizing forces, as the singer uses a distinct artistic form to mock the character of Wesley and warn Betsy about the unfathomable forces on the island.)
How is all of this crammed into a movie that’s barely more than an hour long? Perhaps inevitably, there are numerous plot strands left unresolved. Did Mrs. Rand or Paul actually curse Jessica to send her into her “zombie” trance? Will Betsy continue to stay on in San Sebastian, though she’ll almost certainly face a dreary existence with a man who continues to loathe himself and the world in which he lives? And what about the ending, when a character is killed either by a voodoo ritual or by the jealous rage of a white man, begging the question of which is the more malevolent force on this island? It’s to the movie’s credit that these loose ends continue to haunt the viewer long after it’s over, as the modest production circumstances (a shoestring budget and a mandated runtime of less than 75 minutes) actually aid in the atmosphere of ambiguity and uncertainty.
Director Jacques Tourneur (who moved to the United States with his father in 1913, when he was only nine years old) was a chameleonic director who worked in a variety of genres, from the Val Lewton horror films to film noir like Out of the Past (1947) to westerns like Canyon Passage (1946). Throughout many of his films, though, lies a shadowy atmosphere based on suggestion and offscreen space, as well as a moral middle-ground that refused to lionize or condemn most characters. With I Walked with a Zombie (his second film for Lewton after 1942’s masterful Cat People), Tourneur works with cinematographer J. Roy Hunt to develop an atmosphere of enveloping dread, of the unknown and entrancing located just offscreen. Tourneur evokes performances of trepidation and despair from his cast, allowing the performers to tackle weightier subject matter than many other American roles at the time could offer them. (This extends to Theresa Harris as the maid, Alma; it’s too bad she’s the only Black character with substantial screen time and dialogue, but her rapport with Betsy is tender and beautifully portrayed.) Not too often in the history of Hollywood did the fates commingle to bring together a producer like Val Lewton, a director like Jacques Tourneur, and a talented cast and crew that could achieve maximum style and impact with limited resources. In I Walked with a Zombie—a haunting, sad, and beautiful (if flawed) anomaly that starkly conveys the dark and divisive aftereffects of slavery (only four years after Gone with the Wind pined for a simpler time of Confederate racism)—these forces collaborated to create something truly unique in American cinema.