December 20, 2010

I Walked with a Zombie (Review)

I Walked with a Zombie

Director: Jacques Tourneur
Producer: Val Lewton

4.5 / 5 zedheads

When zombies became flesh-hungry monsters in Romero's movies, they became scary because they posed a creeping threat to our bodies. When zombies became raving Olympic sprinters after 28 Days Later, they became scary because they lent themselves to jump scares and shaky-cam chase scenes. Before all this overt terror, however, Val Lewton made zombies scary because of their ambiguity. Are they alive or dead? Supernatural or natural? Real or myth? The uncanny nature of the supernatural and the ambiguity of the voodoo zombie's existence play key roles in the classic romance mystery of I Walked with a Zombie.

I choose to see that as a good sign.
The film is narrated by Betsy, a Canadian nurse (Frances Dee), who begins the film by saying, "I walked with a zombie... sounds strange to say." Betsy has moved to the West Indies to attend to a woman, Jessica, who has fallen into a walking catatonia. The woman's husband, Paul Holland (Tom Conway) is a plantation owner who feels that he is responsible for his wife's current state. There's also a tension between Paul and his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) who also seems to shoulder a silent guilt over Jessica. Betsy begins to fall in love with Paul and vows to cure his wife, even if it means searching for a supernatural cure for Jessica's zombie-like illness by going deep into the jungle where the voodoo drums beat.

"I see that the magnitude of my handsomeness frightens you."
Under the management of Val Lewton as producer, RKO turned out many cerebral and artful black and white horror films. The studio would give Lewton titles guaranteed to sell -- Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie -- but it was up to Lewton, his writers, and his directors to craft a story. For I Walked with a Zombie, they borrowed the frame story of Jane Eyre to produce a romantic drama with heavy Gothic overtones courtesy of its voodoo subplot.

Here, hold this.
Time has been kind to I Walked with a Zombie. Available on DVD, modern digital restoration has preserved the beauty of the film's composition and lighting. I am always struck by the film's conscious use of shadow and light to produce eerie contrasts and beautifully eerie atmosphere. Universal's horror films were all about the monsters. Lewton and Tourneur's RKO pictures, however, were more about the ambiguity of the supernatural. As a result, I Walked with a Zombie falls into the realm of the uncanny. The uncanny, as described by Sigmund Freud, is a feeling of strangeness that results from objects that seem familiar yet foreign at the same time. The film achieves this feeling by juggling supernatural and scientific rationalization for voodoo and by using everyday objects to cast striking and atmospheric shadows.

Sigh. Your zombie shadow puppet again? Any new material?
If you're looking for gore or monsters tromping across the screen and menacing women in night gowns, you won't find it in I Walked with a Zombie. I Walked with a Zombie is a mystery wrapped around a love triangle that gives no definite answers to whether voodoo and zombies exist in the context of the film, but the suggestion is far more eerie than answers in the end.
Don't worry. He looks taller in silhouette.
Since I Walked with a Zombie is not a sensationalized story, it helps that the performances are nuanced and natural (given the era's dramatic conventions). Also, I Walked with a Zombie is surprisingly compassionate in its representation of blacks. The film does use voodoo and African culture to create dread, but black characters are treated with complex humanity. The film does not belittle them or demonize non-Christian spiritualism. In fact, when voodoo is used as a negative tool, it's not by the hands of black practitioners.

Up the down staircase.
In the history of zombie films, there hasn't been anything quite like I Walked with a Zombie. Surprisingly subtle and surprisingly effective, I Walked with a Zombie is a cerebral zombie film. No gore. No mass murder. No head shots -- just an engaging drama with a thread of unresolved supernatural mystery. An absolute classic of the black and white era.

THE 12 DAYS OF ZOMBIE continues all this week with more reviews of zombie classics as I countdown to Christmas.