Sunday, 2 October 2016

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

I once read a review on Letterboxd that bemoaned the recent developments for the 'fast' zombies of modern horror, a relatively new development that saw the undead possessed with lightning reflexes. The reviewer - who I'll not name to spare any blushes - complained that, with the continuation and popularity of this trope, we were in danger of losing sight of what Romero intended when he created the zombie genre.

Now, I could give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he didn't intend to suggest he believed Romero was the originator of the zombie myth, but if our nameless friend truly believes that that was the case, he really needs to look into the voodoo cults of Haiti which first came to western prominence in the 1920s but had been around a long time before that. And he could broaden his cinema knowledge of the genre a little by watching I Walked With a Zombie, an understated classic from director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton, the team behind Cat People.

Frances Dee stars as Betsy Connell, a young Canadian nurse who is hired by the wealthy West Indian based sugar plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway) to care for his sick wife Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon). Arriving in St Sebestian, Betsy is surprised to find Paul does not share her view that this is truly paradise on earth. Her employer's half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) sees things more her way however, much to Paul's chagrin - there's bad blood between them and it seems Jessica is at the root of their dispute. Disturbed one night, Betsy meets Jessica walking alone in the garden, seemingly in a trance. 

The local medic, Dr Maxwell (James Bell) advises her that Jessica suffers from a severe tropical fever that has laid claim to portions of her spine, leaving her in a stiff, zombie-like state. The pair undertake insulin shock treatment, but to no avail. As Betsy delves deeper into the culture of her new surroundings, she hears from the maid Alma (Theresa Harris) of another sick woman seemingly cured by the islanders during an ancient voodoo ceremony. However, when Betsy suggests this as a likely cure for Jessica, the islanders and Mrs Rand, Paul and Wesley's mother (Edith Barrett) are reticent, believing her to be one of the walking dead.

"A dull, disgusting exaggeration of an unhealthy, abnormal concept of life" was how the New York Times received I Walked with a Zombie upon its release, but in subsequent years the film underwent a major critical reevaluation and is now considered not only to be an intelligent and sophisticated chapter in 20th century horror cinema, but was placed as the fifth best zombie movie in a 2007 poll by Stylus magazine, and quite rightly so. Lewton, who was loathe to use the title that studio RKO forced upon him, instructed his writers to thoroughly research Haitian folklore and use Charlotte Bronte's classic novel Jane Eyre as a template for their tale, which is a suggestion that really pays off, and as with all Lewton's horrors, the central mystery of I Walked with a Zombie remains deeply and satisfyingly ambiguous.

Keep an eye out too for the 'all persons fictitious' disclaimer in the opening titles which reads; "Any similarities to actual persons living, dead, or possessed, is purely coincidental" Mwahahaha! 

I Walked With a Zombie was just one of the film's handpicked by Keith Richards for his Lost Weekend shown last weekend on BBC4; the film was broadcast - of course - in the wee small hours.

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