I Walked With A Zombie is a moody melodrama, not the silly monster movie its title suggests

I Walked With A Zombie is a moody melodrama, not the silly monster movie its title suggests

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: World War Z inspires five nights of the living dead.

I Walked With A Zombie (1943)
After the financial failure of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, RKO adopted an official motto of “showmanship, not genius.” But with Russian-born producer Val Lewton, they got both. Lewton held the purse strings tight, but his house directors—Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson—created trim, efficient, and yet unfailingly evocative movies under his watch.

Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie sounds, no doubt deliberately, like a cheapo creature feature, but it’s really a melodrama in horror-movie disguise, more kin to Wide Sargasso Sea than Night Of The Living Dead. Transported from the snowy climes of Ottawa to the hothouse swelter of the West Indies, nurse Frances Dee goes to work for a dapper plantation owner (Tom Conway) whose wife’s catatonic state turns out to be the result of a voodoo curse. The romance that’s meant to flourish between Dee and Conway is stilted and unconvincing, but it’s clear that Tourneur’s interests lie in the shadows. Even at 68 minutes, the movie is a slow burn, but once Dee walks into the sugar-cane fields on her way to a voodoo ceremony, the fluid play of black on black is mesmerizing to behold.

Perhaps most startling is the way Tourneur, who was born in France and raised in the U.S., links the movie’s fears not to racist caricatures of native evil, but to the rot of slavery and colonialism. On her way to Conway’s manor, Dee is schooled by her driver on the estate’s courtyard statue of St. Sebastian, a former slave-ship figurehead the locals call “Ti-Misery.” That’s not to say Zombie is entirely free from exoticist anxiety, but the bug-eyed figure who incarnates Dee’s fear of the unknown is too otherworldly to be tied to a specific cause. He's beyond human understanding but not our capacity to fear.

Availability: A DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix’s disc delivery service, and rental or purchase from the major digital providers.