Sunday, July 9, 2017

I Walked with a Zombie

Next came I Walked with a Zombie, from 1943. People of today like their mashups--an odious word. Well, I Walked with a Zombie could easily be subtitled Jane Eyre Meets the Walking Dead. It's the story of a Canadian nurse, played by Frances Dee, who goes to the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian to care for the invalid wife of a sugar plantation owner. There, for the first time, she encounters the concept--and the apparent reality--of zombie-ism.

I Walked with a Zombie was based on a newspaper feature of the same name by Cleveland journalist Inez Wallace (1888-1966). The title is sensationalistic and confessional. The story in the movie is told in the voice of the nurse, but it's controlled, intelligent, and even in tone. I imagine much of that is attributable to Curt Siodmak (1902-2000), one of the co-screenwriters. As is the case with the best horror movies, much is left to your imagination.

I wrote about zombies a few months back, pointing out at the time that the fear of zombie-ism is the fear among black people of being returned to slavery or of being made a slave forever. It is not the fear of a capitalist exploiter as critical theorists of today would have us believe. The shadow of slavery and of life under slavery is cast across I Walked with a Zombie, even in the opening minutes as the nurse rides in a wagon with a black driver. I can't say how black people of today might react to the movie, but I think that the awareness of the slave experience, of the suffering and pain of slavery, and of the fear black people had or have of slavery are conveyed in the film at a time when portrayals of any authentic black experience were rare in movies.

I Walked with a Zombie is, I think, a very effective film. The sequence in which the nurse leads the invalid wife through the sugar cane to the Voodoo gathering is very fine. Images of Darby Jones as the zombie Carrefour are extraordinary and unforgettable, surely among the most iconic in American movies. And has any singer in movies been more menacing than Sir Lancelot as he advances upon the nurse, singing his song in deadpan, casting his lyrics upon her like a curse?

I Walked with a Zombie was innovative in some ways. It is supposed to have been the first movie with a calypso song in it. Beyond that, I'm not sure that any previous movie had attempted to show the practice of Voodoo with the same evenness or humanity as this one does. I'm also not sure that any previous movie would have used the words houngan or obeah or Damballah or would have given any credence at all to Voodoo belief or practice. One of the things I like most about I Walked with a Zombie is that the black characters are treated as real human beings and not as stereotypes. There may be divisions in the movie--it is after all about white people and the real threat of zombie-ism is against a white woman--but the white and black characters interact with each other as fellow human beings, and the suffering of black people under slavery is essentially the context in which the drama plays out.

One last thing: I Walked with a Zombie was produced by Val Lewton (1904-1951), who wrote one story for Weird Tales, "The Bagheeta," published in July 1930 and the source for Lewton's film Cat People, from 1942. Lewton was of Jewish extraction, as was Curt Siodmak. Perhaps the history of suffering and slavery among Jews gave these men sympathy for black people and their similar experiences here in the New World under a system imported from the Old.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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