I Walked with a Zombie

Dir. Jacques Tourneur

I Walked with a Zombie was the second collaboration between director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton and it followed on from the irresistible moodiness of Cat People (1942). Essentially taking the film’s rather lurid title from a newspaper article, and transporting elements of the plot of ‘Jane Eyre’ to a tropical setting, the filmmakers have created one of the most subtle, chilling and downright poetic horror films ever produced.

The plot follows Betty (Frances Dee), a young nurse, as she journeys to the West Indies to care for the catatonic wife of plantation owner Paul Holland (the exceedingly British Tom Conway). Betty soon begins to fall in love with Paul, and begins to suspect that the Holland family have a few dark secrets that are about to surface. Paul’s younger brother Wesley (James Ellison) and their mother Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett) are also caught up in whatever it is that Paul seems so keen to keep Betty from discovering. Betty believes that Paul’s wife Jessica (Christine Gordon) has had a voodoo curse placed on her by someone and has become a zombie, destined to wander in the dark and never again have a will of her own…

When Betty meets Paul onboard a ship bound for the West Indies, she is gazing dreamily at the night sky and wondering aloud what her new job will be like. She is abruptly yanked out of her daydream by Paul who scolds her for being so naïve. What follows is a wonderfully evocative speech about the perils of taking things at face value. Paul’s words conjure all sorts of morbid and provoking connotations: ‘It's easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer. Everything seems beautiful because you don't understand. Those flying fish - they're not leaping for joy. They're 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's no beauty here. Only death and decay.’

This speech enhances the underlying themes of death and despair that the film is enshrouded within, and creates an atmosphere pregnant with foreboding and strange melancholy.

The eerie atmosphere of the film is enhanced by the beautiful cinematography. Director of photography J. Roy Hunt is a master of chiaroscuro, and every scene is awash with pools of light tapering off into the darkest of shadows and is simply breathtaking. There are so many startling images contained within this film and they are all bathed in such an unnerving beauty, largely due to the way in which they are lit. One of the film’s stand-out set pieces occurs when Betty decides to take Jessica to a voodoo ceremony – what follows is one of Lewton’s infamous ‘walks’ – an event that reoccurs in many of his productions. The two women wander through a cornfield under the eerie light of the moon, the camera gliding serenely after them. The use of sound in this scene is also extremely effective: music is completely absent; all we hear is the wind rustling and howling hauntingly through the flora.

It is also in this scene that we are introduced to the film’s titular zombie, Carrefour (Darby Jones). The camera tracks along the ground following the beam of light from Betty’s torch and comes to rest at a pair of bare feet. Moving up from the feet we are confronted with the most striking of faces: cold, dead eyes stare blankly from a strangely sad and yet horrifying face. 

Betty is one of Lewton’s typically resourceful female characters. While other female leads in 40s horror films were reduced to fainting a tad too much, Lewton’s women were resilient, courageous and strong willed. Frances Dee’s performance is sturdy and she imbues Betty with a sense of what is right and undeniable tenacity. Events continue to languidly unfold until the unavoidably tragic climax that still retains such an impact today. I Walked with a Zombie is an underrated and atmospheric film of such heavy-heartedness. It fully showcases the talents of both Tourneur and Lewton, and remains a darkly beautiful visual poem.

‘You shouldn’t get mad at the New York reviewers. Actually, it’s very difficult for a reviewer to give something called ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ a good review.’ An all too modest Val Lewton, in a letter to his sister, 1942.


Anonymous said…
I haven't seen this movie yet, but it's definitely one I'd like to check out after reading your review James. Some fantastic still shots there.

Popular posts from this blog

The Haunting of Black Wood

Beware the Autumn People...

Whistle and I’ll Come to You (2010)