Val Lewton produced a slew of Low-budget, highly effective horror thrillers for RKO during the 1940’s. Last night I took an hour and twenty minutes to watch his 1943 production of I Walked with a Zombie, directed by Jaques Tourneur, better known for the Robert Mitchum vehicle Out of the Past.
While Out of the Past has been held as a high watermark for a particularly desperate and convoluted strain of noir, I Walked With a Zombie has an equally sterling reputation as a film that lies somewhere on the outskirts of true horror. I say the outskirts because, despite all of the voodoo high-jinx, it’s never made explicit whether the events we are witnessing have a true supernatural bent to them or are just the products of conflict, coincidence and perhaps mild hysteria. The result is something more akin to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw that the more sensationalistic horror features that were being pumped out by B studios at the time.
The story concerns a Canadian nurse hired to care for the ill wife of a sugar plantation owner on the haiti-like small Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. Of course when she arrives on the island nothing is as she imagined it would be. The wife’s illness may or may not be avoodoo zombie trance/curse. and the feuding brothers who rule the plantation appear locked in a battle of secrets and lies that only make the cause and true nature of each plot beat more ambiguous.
From the moment our heroin steps onto the boat, the film lives in a dark, sweltering dream. People’s faces (and by extension motivations) are lost in in a thick jungle world of chiaroscuro cinematography courtesy of J. Roy Hunt. The voodoo ritual sequences in particular remain chillingly alien non-native eyes. The drums that echo out from the jungle that surrounds these characters becoming more ominous with each passing scene.
The film as a whole is a very tense, perhaps even sophisticated affair. After I Walked with Zombie, Lewton would go on to produce several other Horror flicks for RKO including classics such as The Leopard Man and the Seventh Victim among others. But the level of ambiguity and quiet dread found in this film was never quite equalled.