(1943) dir. Jacques Tourneur
I had seen I Walked with a Zombie when I was living in England 11 years ago and the film had made a great impression on me. I have long been a fan of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur’s collaborations and really think that this film is pretty darn amazing.
These zombies are not the blood-thirsty killing machines of the 1960’s and beyond, but the more Voodoo-inspired walking dead that embody the term “zombie” (meaning catatonic more or less) more than the ones that want to eat people’s flesh.
It’s a Gothic tale in a true sense of the genre. I’ve read that it is a loose adaptation of Jane Eyre which is further insistence that that novel hits my summer reading list. Atmospherically shot, with shadows of Venetian blinds and jungle leaves, it’s a dark nightmare of a dream, with visions of fear and death.
The most striking images are those of Darby Jones, the dead-eyed African zombie, who lurches around like a specter. The shot by the tree with the hanging goat is iconic, often cited in texts. It’s really of something from a lost time. The attitude towards racism is mixed, somewhat well-intentioned, but using fear of the unknown of Voodoo as outre, there is a malignity in this, probably not entirely out of step with the Hollywood, even the B-movie Hollywood, of its era. Still, there are more African-Americans in this film than in many. But I must say, after reading a few short stories that focused on African or Caribbean Voodoo and religion as a site of horror and titillation, I would say that this comes from a small sub-genre of horror that makes it interesting, too.
The film is beautiful, particularly in its poetic ending. One other thing that struck me about it is that Val Lewton and Co. were true pre-cursors of Roger Corman in creating low-budget horror films that transcend genre and elevate into great art.