I Walked with a Zombie

Re-examining Val Lewton’s 1943 low-budget classic

Two months before Cat People opened in 1942, the cameras started to roll on producer Val Lewton’s second film. RKO Pictures had tested and approved the title I Walked with a Zombie, and now wanted a movie based on the title.

Zombie is a movie loved by most critics in spite of its failures and gaping plot holes. It works because it is about mood and atmosphere rather than horror itself. It’s about voodoo, mental illness and alcoholism. It may even be about zombies. Like many Lewton films, it’s never quite made clear.

Most of all, I Walked with a Zombie is an exercise in misdirection, including the title itself. Audiences expecting to see hordes of brain-eating zombies on the march have an entirely different experience.

The film begins with two figures walking distantly on a beach. It’s not clear who these people are, and the film never returns to this scene to let us know definitively. A voice-over from Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) explains in a wistful tone that “I walked with a zombie last night.” It’s the same tone in which Meryl Streep says “I once had a farm in Africa.” It defuses any notion that walking with a zombie is anything other than a calm, etherial experience.

Connell, a Canadian, has been recruited as a private nurse to the ailing wife of a sugar baron named Paul Holland (Tom Conway). Holland lives on the fictitious West Indian isle of Saint Sebastian, where the black population was brought in chains generations ago and now practices Haitian voodoo.

Once on the island, Betsy learns that her charge is “a mental case.” Taken by fever, Mrs. Holland is now nonverbal and detached from the world except to sleepwalk or be guided by the sane. Concurrently, there is an unspoken, hard-boiled tension between Paul and his alcoholic younger half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), the result of a love triangle with Jessica prior to her becoming a vegetable.

Betsy decides to find a cure for Jessica, and is told by the two white medical experts on the island, including the brothers’ own mother (Edith Barrett), that it’s hopeless. At night, however, Betsy hears voodoo drums, and realizes that voodoo medicine may be able to break Mrs. Holland’s trance.

And so, Zombie is a movie of opposites: white people and black people, Canada and the Caribbean, medicine and voodoo, living and dead. Rather than being contrasted, the lines are blurred so that the audience does not have a good sense of right and wrong and how to judge the situation.

Adding to this disorientation are the sets, which seem to move in subtle ways. Does Betsy’s room look out upon the courtyard? The sugar fields? Paul Holland’s living room? Does Mrs. Holland live in a tower? Under a tower? In a room beside the tower? Moreover, why do seemingly important plot devices end up meaning nothing? Is it that a bad B-Movie was careless with the script and the shooting? Or are we being told that realities are far less explainable than what simple plot devices normally allow?

For a 1943 movie, I Walked with a Zombie is remarkably modern in its portrayal of its black characters, the history of island slavery, and even in its respect toward voodoo. It is surprising, given the films exploitative title, that it fails to exploit such low-hanging fruit. Lewton became fascinated by Hatian culture while working on the piece, and spent a percentage of his paltry budget hiring genuine voodoo drummers and a Hatian cultural and voodoo expert named LeRoy Antoine as a technical adviser. It is quite possible that the relationship between Lewton and Antoine allowed a black perspective into the writing, rather than it being a white man’s perception of slavery and voodoo.

Mark Robson, in The Celluloid Muse, noted that Lewton was a difficult man with whom to work. He wasted time and seldom could accomplish anything without the pressure of a deadline. When his employees went home at night, insomnia would keep him up, rewriting the script and mulling over new ideas. Lewton encouraged extensive collaboration, but then made the end result deeply personal.

Hired to write the script was Curt Siodmark, whose work writing horror pictures for Universal monster movies was well known. Lewton’s plan had always been to throw away the Universal formula, and eventually he threw away Siodmark, himself, replacing him with screenwriter Ardel Wray. As in many Lewton films, Val Lewton re-wrote the final draft of the script, but never took writing credit.

As the movie ends, we’re never sure whether the forces that lead to discord and death are spiritual or human, whether the moon reflecting upon the water is beautiful, or whether it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies and is the glitter of putrescence. What’s beautiful and benign can seem eerie, and those things that cause us great concern can, in the end, be benign.