I Walked with a Zombie was the second film Val Lewton produced once given complete control of RKO’s horror unit, and it was released only a year after Cat People, his most famed horror film. Given this, one might expect a retread, but I Walked with a Zombie is certainly not the film anyone then or now would be expecting. A tension seethes in the air and grasps all, but the film doesn’t demand in the way a work like Cat People is so tersely constructed to fight for our attention. Absent are the soul-deep colors of Cat People which lighted up the screen with black energy. And in place of the rampant diluted German Expressionism of American horror throughout the ’30s and ’40s, all caught up in harsh and angular nightmares, we have something that more closely approximates a hazy dream, a curious cross between an English period drama and a work of French impressionism that centers mournful, elegiac long takes and has room enough for lost secrets deviously begging to get out . It is, above all, wholly distant from anything resembling horror logic, and it is all the more fascinating for it.
If the film isn’t horror, it all begins with the basic narrative, which subverts what ought to be scary and instead peruses its most tragic and anguished corners and crevices. As presented, the film’s only real connection to horror is that it involves something called a “zombie”, but even then it’s not what we expect. The zombie is Mrs. Holland (Christine Gordon), the wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conaway), a sugar plantation owner in the West Indies, and a nurse, Betsey (Francis Dee), from the states has come to cure her. Mrs. Holland’s state is less flesh-eating than transfixed, though – she walks around aimlessly and can take no action of her own. The scene where we meet her is impossibly Gothic, but the horror is quickly whisked away by Lewton’s other interests. The film spends as much time with interpersonal drama and romantic tension as anything resembling horror – it is more about the dreamy otherness the West Indies represents for the nurse, and the long-gestating family complication left non-discussed by the participants, than anything specifically paranormal or otherworldly. In fact, the film never reveals exactly whether anything supernatural is going on at all – it may just be one more manifestation of the family’s dark, tragic secrets soon to be uncovered.
The easiest argument for the film’s roots in a malaised, classicist drama and exploration of human existence – something close to melodrama if the film weren’t so doleful and lacking in ego – is its very opening. Right from the very beginning, we’re greeted with a classical theme and two characters walking on a beach with a voice-over so fatalistic and theatrical yet longing it seems lifted right out of Shakespeare. Of course, the tone is as mocking of nostalgia as it is nostalgic – the narration, proclaiming “oh yes, I walked with a zombie once” as if the narrator did so much more with that zombie and delights in teasing us about it, reflects Lewton’s perturbed sense of comedy, his auterist deconstruction of genre, his flair for the psycho-sexually suggestive, and, most importantly, his sheer joy at having fun with our sensibilities.
Yet the film is unnerving, largely thanks to Jacques Tourneur’s direction (holding the fort down after working with Lewton on Cat People as well), for which the only appropriate word is mesmerizing. The absolute highlight comes when Betsey, takes the transfixed Mrs. Holland to a voodoo ritual – Tourneur avoids most of the racializing that mars many other films from the time and instead concentrates on the poetic morbidity of the scorched earth, the quavering plants as tall as humans, and some deeply unsettling sound design that sees the wind take on a life of its own. One luminous, long tracking shot in particular belongs in the annals of time, as does a specific cut to a shadowed figure, shot from below and far away to capture alien-like obtuseness, and obscured except around the edges to give him an atomic glow.
The film’s nerviness, however, more closely approximates a decayed questioning of a family resting on their own lies about history and their role in it. The film unquestionably deals with race in a manner shockingly frank and progressive for 1943 – an early moment has Betsey speaking to a black servant, who tells her about the island’s history of soul-destroying violence and slavery, to which she responds that the white family at least took him, and the slaves, to a “beautiful” place. The film is anything but naïve about this – the servant’s response, a mocking “if you say so, miss”, tells all: the film very much destroys the myth that slavery could a benevolent institution. We’re very much meant to realize Betsey is a fool here, someone who doesn’t belong and who has no idea of the horrors the island is built on.
In 1943, the idea of a zombie was unmistakably connected to its origins in Haitian voodoo and the long-lasting white fear that those African-Americans whose deaths built America were not really dead, and might have a thing or two to say to white America still. In this sense, I Walked with a Zombie sees Lewton turning the gaze of horror back on itself and observing its core in this form of privileged human trauma. If the film deals in a certain spookery surrounding African voodoo, its attitude toward it is more that it is an other whites don’t understand, something of great power often used for healing, and not something meant to harm. Most of the film’s tragedy occurs as a result of white’s meddling in that which they do not know – in assuming they can understand voodoo and continue to take power over black culture. While Lewton is widely known to have had great interest in internal trauma, here he connects it to a shared, collective American history, exploring how a family who built riches on the backs of slaves can be undone by their unwillingness to deal with the past in the present. When the film ends on an impossibly haunting note, with Lewton using a stunningly baritoned narrator to the effect of constructing a cautionary fable-like bedtime story, it’s clear that the film’s greatest horror is America’s greatest secret.