initial reaction to I Walked With a Zombie was mixed. One
of the problems, as The
Horrorist described succinctly, was the heroine Betsys
love story, which was pretty much just thrown in and pointless,
as well as unbelievable. Typical dialogue relating to this was
scenery is so beautiful!
Dont let it fool you. Everything you see around you
Oh, dont be so serious.
Death. Disease. Hopelessness.
[Voiceover] "He made me want to kill myself. And yet,
I could feel myself falling in love with him.
a more interesting love story/triangle besides that, but it's
left rather unresolved. Along those lines, another problem I had
initially was the myriad plot threads that were started but left
dangling. By the end of the film, I was thinking things like Wait
a sec, wasnt she supposed to...? So none of
that bit meant anything? But the more thought I gave it,
the more I realized that director Jacques Tourneur and producer
Val Lewton knew what they were doing. The films lack of
resolution tied very carefully into the overall tone of ambiguity,
and the film seemed to work... in a truly unusual way.
an opening voiceover, the character Betsy notes that a year
ago, Im not at all sure I would have known what a zombie
was. By the end of the movie, I wasnt so sure myself.
like Val Lewtons other films (the better ones, at least),
virtually everything about I Walked with a Zombie was deliberately
ambiguous. Were these zombies alive or dead? Were they the product
of voodoo, sickness, or something else? Are people creating their
own destinies, or are they caught in a stranglehold by the past?
And what exactly happened in the past? Many questions are left
unresolved, or the answers are only suggested.
ambiguities are only accentuated by various ironies throughout
the film. For example, the opening shot of Betsy literally walking
with a zombie does not depict anything that actually occurs in
the movie. Betsys apparent obliviousness to the racial and
historical realities of her new surroundings -- that bugged the
Horrorist during a truly ironic bit of dialogue -- show her naive
foreignness to a world in which she is now at the center, another
contrast that adds to the deliberate overall uncertainty of the
sense of uncertainty is perfectly supplemented by the films
extremely evocative atmosphere, which is full of lovely but disquieting
music, haunting visuals, and strikingly symbolic and metonymic
imagery. The racial issues are often coded by such images as a
slave ships figurehead of Saint Sebastian -- blackened,
weeping, and impaled with arrows. The rich, often stark contrasts
between light and shadow (note, for example, the light filtering
through window blinds) emphasize what is really a liminal space
between worlds (more on that below).
an aside, the movie stands out for its time in the number of serious,
respectful roles it gave to black actors. It also treated the
subject of voodoo with a certain dignity -- if not realism --
that's generally lacking in the sensationalized version found
in most American horror.
Zombies (and Other Thoughts)
Walked with a Zombie features only two zombies, and dont
expect any fleshmunching or even real violence. The zombie Jessica
Holland is so ghostlike that her very presence is spooky
(especially by the standards of the 40s). Shes haunting,
sad, and regal beyond the zombified damsel found in other zombie
films of the era. The zombie Carrefour, played by
Darby Jones (who would again show up as a zombie in 1945s
Zombies on Broadway), is one of zombiedoms most striking,
memorable figures -- right up there with Bub and Big Daddy, in
my opinion. The lean, towering figure exudes both menace and dignity.
His appearances and role in the film, as well as his very name
(crossroads in French), all illustrate the essential
liminality that is at the films core.
the film really deals with are the various crossroads
between Life and Death, between Self and Other, between Black
and White ethnicities, between social mechanization and Free Will.
These issues have been represented in some form or another by
zombies ontologically (in their very nature and being) since White
Zombie and even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and persist
in zombie cinema to this day (see Romero, for example). But in
I Walked with a Zombie the issues broaden to paint an entire
world between worlds, pervading the background and teasing the
audience along with all the characters, finally becoming embodied
by the zombies themselves in direct, uncanny confrontation with
film may not be very scary (especially by today's standards),
but it is spooky and well crafted, at least in terms of artistry
and signification. As a reward to the viewer with patience and
the ability to put up with some plot absurdities and narrative
reticence, I Walked with a Zombie should offer an unsettling,
haunting, and thought-provoking experience.
7.9 out of 10 random hanging dog corpses(?)