Val LewtonzombiesFrances DeeTom Conway
I Walked with a Zombie
Medium: film
Year: 1943
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Producer: Val Lewton
Writer: Charlotte Bronte, Inez Wallace, Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray
Keywords: horror, zombies
Country: USA
Actor: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Christine Gordon, Theresa Harris, Sir Lancelot, Darby Jones, Jeni Le Gon
Format: 69 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 10 November 2009
The first Val Lewton film I don't really like. Oh, it's as classy as you'd expect. It could even be argued that it's got more atmosphere than usual, courtesy of a fascinatingly down-to-earth approach to the natives' voodoo combined with Jacques Tourneur's haunting direction. I'd never dream of arguing with anyone who loved it, but this time it just didn't do it for me.
The problem is that I'm not wild about the story. It's supposedly based on an American Weekly Magazine article by Inez Wallace, but Lewton thought it cliched and quietly altered his film to be more like Jane Eyre. A kind-hearted nurse (Frances Dee) gets a job in the Caribbean looking after the catatonic wife of one Mr Holland (Tom Conway). Gee, ain't life hard. Dee duly sails out and soon discovers that the islands are indeed beautiful and the lifestyle idyllic, but that her employers are slightly disturbing. Conway is an emotionally uptight Englishman with a sadistic streak that manifests itself through a precise use of words. "The glitter of putrescence." His American half-brother (James Ellison) is a charming alcoholic. Everything seems rooted in sadness, from the black natives' roots in slavery to the unfortunate history that's underlying pretty much everything Conway and Ellison say and do. Everywhere you look, there's a dichotomy between beauty and tragedy. There are also two stories being told here, each about a triangle involving the two half-brothers, one in the past with Conway's wife before she entered her vegetative state and one in the present with Dee.
That's the theory, anyway. Unfortunately in practice I didn't really buy it. Dee's relationship with Ellison is convincing, but there's something very odd going on with her and Conway. In fairness, it's meant to be like that. Conway's playing a distinctly odd fish and there's something horribly plausible about his chilly, damaged attitude towards Dee. It's a complicated relationship. However I never really believed that Dee was in love with him, despite her dialogue, and their relationship doesn't turn out to be very important in the end anyway. I like all the actors when considered individually, but I wasn't convinced by the crucial chemistry between two of them. The thing about Val Lewton's films is that they're so subtle and intelligent that it feels odd to be saying I like the others but not this one. You could go mad trying to differentiate between them. However personally I found this one occasionally a bit languid, with a central relationship I didn't quite believe and a story that seems to reach its conclusion by meandering off on a tangent.
There's still plenty to admire here, though. The film was a critical and financial success at the time and has been praised for both its performances and atmosphere. There's no weak link among the actors and as an ensemble they're rather remarkable. One of my favourites was Theresa Harris as the black maid Alma, who's been given what's ostensibly a bog-standard servant's role and yet is bringing honesty, warmth and realism to the screen. She could have been nothing more than a "yes ma'am" walk-on, but she's so alive that she almost glows. She astonished me. She's a huge part of the reason why this film is rightly regarded as being so sensitive towards the Caribbean's culture and people. Ellison and Conway are both a little bit brilliant at showing us their sadness in paradise, while Dee is never less than beautiful and heartwarming.
One oddity, incidentally, is that Ellison and Conway's mother is being played by an actress who's 36. That's three years older than the former and two years younger than the latter. Goodness knows what gave Tourneur the idea of casting her, but she's completely convincing and I'd have never even thought about her age if I hadn't looked it up online afterwards. Her name's Edith Barrett and she's as impressive as her co-stars, although at one point I was wondering if she'd had an accident and got smacked in the face or something. Is it just me, or had she hurt her mouth? It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Lewton and Tourneur had been meaning something with that, you know.
The Caribbean and its voodoo culture is my favourite thing about the film. It's fascinating because I've never seen voodoo portrayed so matter-of-factly. Lurid nonsense like Live and Let Die is pure theatre, but here it feels as if we're living in a land where there happens to be another religion being practiced. Ellison and Conway only mention it to Dee because of the noise outside, whereupon she ends up deliberately going to the voodoo priests for medical reasons. Half the white characters in the film have received Western medical training, so the audience can never be sure whether the voodoo mysticism has it right or whether the Latin words and psychological diagnoses were correct all along. Similarly the voodoo worshippers are dressed as if they're going to church, with suits, ties and hats. Admittedly they do a bit of dancing and there's a man with a sword, but there's no attempt from the film to turn them into monsters. It's just their religion. They're spooky and their crossroads is guarded by a seven-foot-tall black man who never speaks, blinks or reacts to anything, but that doesn't make them bad people.
You'll have realised already that this isn't a zombie movie in the modern sense, obviously. It feels culturally authentic and sensitive instead. One of the all-time great titles, though.
Tom Conway did two other Val Lewton films, Cat People and The Seventh Victim, both times playing the same role of Dr Louis Judd. Meanwhile Edith Barrett was in The Ghost Ship. While I'm making less important observations, incidentally, check out the legal disclaimer in the opening credits. "The characters and events depicted in this photoplay are fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living, dead, or possessed, is purely coincidental."
Even now I'm still humming and hawing about what I think about this movie. I did admittedly get a little bored, but only for a bit towards the end. On the contrary, quite a lot of the time it charmed me. Its portrait of Caribbean life is human, honest and warm, being refreshingly free of "yes massah" servant cliches. It's first-rate in terms of both its character and atmosphere, although in a dreamlike way rather than being (for the most part) scary. Its happiness and sadness side by side is particularly distinctive and would probably make it a hell of a film to watch if you'd just had an emotional shock and were feeling vulnerable. Even vignettes like that singer in the street are astonishing. It may be my least favourite Val Lewton to date, but anyone who says it's a bad movie is asking to be pelted with rocks.