Dec 3, 2020

I Walked with a Zombie


As the largely pathetically plastic and aesthetically and artistically prosaic history of Hollywood—a virtual dream factory designed for dullards and dictated over by demons and devils—surely demonstrates, the producer-as-auteur is a most putrid prospect that, not surprisingly, reached its peak long ago during the first year of the Second World War with such preposterously plush proto-blockbusters as Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Needless to say, it is somewhat shocking yet somehow strangely fitting that during WWII a deracinated Judaic producer would be responsible for creating some of the greatest and most pleasantly poetic horror films of all-time. Influencing everything from Curtis Harrington’s delightful debut feature Night Tide (1961) to Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle (1960-1964) to Mike Nichols’ sole unexpected horror effort Wolf (1994), Val Lewton—the introverted nephew of femme fatale Alla Nazimova who was behind the surprisingly artsy fartsy Oscar Wilde adaptation Salomé (1923)—never directed a single feature but to deny him the status of ‘auteur’ would be insulting to a man that produced films that were certainly weirder and more poetical than anything ever directed by James Whale. Indeed, as a producer at RKO Pictures during the 1940s, Lewton actually managed to rival the Teutonic masters of German Expressionism with a cycle of boldly beauteous and hypnotically haunting horror movies that, despite technically being low-budget quickies, brought artistic credibility to a genre that very few took/take seriously. While most of Lewton’s horror films have something to offer, I can state without even the slightest degree of hesitation that I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is easily my favorite of these flavorsome fright flicks. Directed by Jacques Tourneur who helmed the greatest (and earliest) of the Lewton films, including Cat People (1942) and The Leopard Man (1943), and who would also direct the great British horror flick Night of the Demon (1957), Lewton’s pre-Romero zombie flick is probably the single greatest artistic contribution to the flesheater genre and it does not even feature a single instance of flesh-eating. In short, I Walked with a Zombie makes for a great case that George A. Romero may have had a disastrous influence on zombie cinema, but of course that would be missing the point as the film is a piece of cinematic poetry that simply transcends any sort of genre ghetto and is imbued with a sort of warm melancholy and the uniquely uncanny that, not unlike the undead negroes in the film, leaves one in a trance. 
 
 
While it might just be a mere coincidence, it seems that the most poetic works of horror cinema do not extend much past the 60-minute mark as demonstrated by Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), and Jörg Buttgereit’s Schramm (1993), among various other examples. Of course, I Walked with a Zombie, not unlike Lewton’s other RKO horror films, is no different as a 69-minute feature with a seemingly immaculate flow and pace that begs for frequent re-watchings. In fact, the first time I watched the film, I decided to immediately re-watch it and I felt no less effortlessly enraptured during this second viewing, which is not something I can say about many films, including many of my favorite ones. Clearly made before the zombie film became a ghettoized gallery of the unimaginatively gory and grotesque, the film—unquestionably the greatest collaboration between dual auteurs Lewton and Tourneur—demonstrates that sometimes taking narrative influence from a classic Charlotte Brontë Bildungsroman like Jane Eyre: An Autobiography (1847) can do a horror film good as a hallucinatory cinematic work that takes an almost somnambulistic approach to the art of storytelling. Indeed, a quite literally titled flick less-than-loosely based on the story of the same name featured in American Weekly magazine by roving journalist Inez Wallace, it begins in a flashback form and even disseminates narrative bits in the form of a goofy negro calypso singer who seems almost literally possessed with a need to spread the anti-gospel of a romantically accursed white plantation family. A film that is somewhat in the racially-charged tradition of H.P. Lovecraft in terms of depicting the forsaken status of white European colonial types that made the mistake of colonizing exotic lands and mixing with non-Europeans, the film also wallows in the hopelessly hoodooed status of Faustian man and his sorry state in the postcolonial world. Needless to say, I Walked with a Zombie makes Wes Craven’s particularly plodding The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) seem like an artless exercise in zany xenophilia by comparison. Additionally, even the watchable second season The X-Files episode “Fresh Bones”—a racially confused tribute to the dubious horrors of Haitian Vodou—seems like a feckless fantasy compared to the pure preternatural poetry of Lewton’s classic flick. Admittedly, the film also imbues the viewer with a sense that it makes no sense to fiddle with the old dark things of old dark peoples lest one suffer an indelible sort of spiritual miscegenation. 
 
Although himself a mischling with tiresomely turgid prose, film scholar Chris Fujiwara makes a great point about the film in his text The Cinema of Nightfall: Jacques Tourneur (1998) when he argues that, “To try to synopsize I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is a peculiarly ridiculous task, since the film, more systematically than any other Tourneur film, abolishes narrative verisimilitude,” yet Fujiwara then curiously proceeds to provide a synopsis, but I digress. While Fujiwara tends to puke-out prosaic puffery as is especially apparent in his obscenely banal Otto Preminger biography The World and Its Double (2008), he completely nails it when he states, “One of Tourneur’s most beautiful films, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is a sustained exercise in uncompromising ambiguity. Perfecting the formula that Lewton and Tourneur had developed in CAT PEOPLE, the film carries its predecessor’s elliptical, oblique narrative procedures to astonishing extremes. The dialogue is almost nothing but a commentary on past events, obsessively revisiting itself, finally giving up the struggle to explain and surrendering to a mute acceptance of the inexplicable. We watch the slow, atmospheric, lovingly detailed scenes with delight and fascination, realizing at the end that we have seen nothing but the traces of a conflict decided in advance.” 
 
 
I have to confess that virtually every single nurse that I have ever personally known was a cold cunt and it comes as no surprise to me that an inordinately large number of female serial killers were members of the profession, but it would be a lie to say that I Walked with a Zombie lead Betsy Connell (Frances Dee)—a white Canadian chick that immediately lets the viewer know via voiceover that she once “walked with a zombie”—is unlikable, though one certainly sometimes questions her borderline cuckquean-like behavior. Although a Canadian nurse, Betsy somehow finds herself relocating to the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian where she is hired by the severely cynical Paul Holland (Tom Conway)—a cultivated man that seems to hate everyone and everything, especially in regard to his seemingly accursed family and their dubious legacy—to take care of his wife Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) who may or may not be a zombie. While Jessica’s status as a member of the living dead is somewhat questionable, her past life as a wanton whore is unquestionable as she was responsible for bringing misery to Paul’s family by starting a lurid extramarital love affair with his hunky half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) who clearly has stronger feelings for the tragic voodoo floozy. Needless to say, Nurse Betsy, who eventually develops curious romantic feelings for Paul, finds herself getting stuck in the middle of the fucked family affair and even gets so desperate in her quest to cure Jessica that she takes her to a voodoo temple called a ‘Houmfort’ with the help of a titular undead colored gentleman named Carrefour (Darby Jones) with big bulging eyes that puts maestro Mantan Moreland to shame in terms of the unnervingly grotesque and racially caricaturely unfortunate. Naturally, Betsy is somewhat shocked when she discovers that Paul and Wesley’s mother Mrs. Rand (who is strangely portrayed by Vincent Price’s wife Edith Barrett in old fart makeup) is not only involved in the voodoo scene, but she also takes credit for turning Jessica into a zombie. Of course, it is hard to hate Mrs. Rand as Jessica is the hot twat harpy that ripped her family apart. While Mrs. Rand only makes her curious confession after a local commissioner opts to launch an official investigation into the living dead dame’s (ostensible?) illness, her son Wesley decisively puts an end to all the madness by killing Jessica—with or without the help of less than divine intervention—and then drowning himself in a darkly dreamy scenario that rather conveniently takes place at very same time a voodoo ritual involving an effigy of Jessica is being carried out by the local voudon negroes. While I Walked with a Zombie does not end on a happy note as potential lovebirds Betsy and Paul do not even start a romance (though such a scenario was rightly excised from the original script), it could not have ended any other way as a film that wallows in the racially apocalyptic legacy of colonialism and, in turn, (proto)multiculturalism. In short, Lovecraft wept. 
 
 
Undoubtedly Lewton’s greatest director, Tourneur apparently also shared his collaborator’s ‘progressive’ outlook when it came to race as is so delicately depicted not only in I Walked with a Zombie, but also his later films. Indeed, as Tourneur once stated in an interview with Positif in regard to his then-atypical affection for Afro-Americans, “I’ve always refused to caricature blacks. I’ve never or almost never showed them as domestics. I’ve always tried to give them a profession, to have them speak normally without drawing any comic effect. Watch in OUT OF THE PAST the scene in the nightclub where there are only black people, look at the way they’re dressed and filmed, the elegance of the young woman in responding to Mitchum. Several times I’ve been accused of being a ‘n*gger lover’ and for long months I was out of the studios for that reason. It was a sort of gray list.” Undoubtedly, many of the colored characters in Lewton’s/Tourneur’s zombie flick have a sort of rare ‘tragic nobility’ that is thankfully not betrayed by the sort of rabid self-righteous ressentiment and racial hubris that is typical of ostensibly progressive modern-day Hollywood films, especially the sort of black bourgeois pseudo-art horror of Jordan Peele (who has rightly been described as the great Afro-American film critic Armond White as a “race hustler” and “charlatan”). Additionally, whether intentional or not, I Walked with a Zombie manages to make a mockery of spiritually castrated white progressive types, namely in a scene where the character Paul—the wealthy yet accursed descendant of slave traders—declares when describing a statue of Saint Sebastian named Ti-Misery that, “it was once the figurehead of a slave-ship. That’s where our people came from.” Indeed, like the stereotype of the sort of nihilistic self-destructive aristocrat described in Vilfredo Pareto’s classic text The Rise and Fall of Elites: Application of Theoretical Sociology, degenerate rich boy Paul absurdly identifies with people of a completely different race and class over his own kin, but such is the forsaken fate of a fucked fellow from a unfortunate family that made the rather shortsighted mistake of getting rich off of slavery. Needless to say, Paul’s curse is also now that of the entire modern Occidental world. 
 
 
Notably, in his worthwhile text Val Lewton: the Reality of Terror (1972), Joel E. Siegel, who regards I Walked with a Zombie as the first of Lewton’s two true masterpieces (the other being the delightfully deathly dark The Seventh Victim (1943) directed by Mark Robson) and a work somewhat rightly compared to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) in terms of its technique and mosaic-like structure, soundly argues, “Lewton’s strongest abilities are, as [James] Agee observed, poetic and cinematic and not literary or romantic. A very free adaptation of JANE EYRE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is particularly poetic in its equivocal, often inexplicable, interrelationships between characters […] At no time in the film, even at its conclusion, do we have any idea of strong, single motivations determining the action and characters. Lewton cleverly sets up a series of perplexing relationships; the mystery of his complexly driven human characters leads us outward, gradually to accept the film’s supernatural elements without disbelief. The film’s central image, an emblematic crystallization of all this ambiguity, is the figurehead of St Sebastian which came to the island on a slave ship and now stands in the Holland garden. St Sebastian, who exists at the meeting point of paganism and Christianity, is a fit deity for the film, a mixture of the elemental and the tamed, the fleshly and the divine. The figurehead, which at times serves as a quick transition between scenes, is an emblem of the blending of love and hatred, beauty and terror, reason and superstition, at the heart of this complex, remarkable film.” Indeed, aside from being a rare example of a film that does not utilize Saint Sebastian in a hokey homoerotic way à la Paul Schrader’s dreadful Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005), I Walked with a Zombie is a rare horror films that manages to be just as effortlessly enigmatic as it is archetypically perennial. 
 
 
Apparently, Val Lewton’s own loving wife said in regard to the film that is quite arguably her husband’s magnum opus, “I would never go to see a movie called I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE unless somebody dragged me there.” Rather fittingly, the film even opens with the heroine Betsy Connell mocking the title in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, but unfortunately the title at least temporarily acted as a curse of sorts on the ill-fated-filled film, or as Siegel explained, “It is perhaps characteristic of Lewton’s career that this film, one of the rare pieces of pure visual poetry ever to come out of Hollywood, was seen by hardly anybody but the bloodthirsty chiller fans who frequented theaters like the Rialto in New York. Later, through the efforts of critics like James Agee and Manny Farber, readers of magazines like THE NATION and THE NEW REPUBLIC were altered to the very special quality of Lewton’s productions.” Personally, I am still pissed off at myself for not watching the film over a decade ago as I already regard it as easily in my own personal ‘top ten films of all-time’ despite only first seeing it this year. Indeed, while I now generally regard most of the zombie (sub)genre as being about as appetizing as undead excreta, I Walked with a Zombie is a potent reminder as to why I love cinema and spend so much time devouring cinema despite being routinely disappointed by a good portion of it. While I will always have a softspot for fine flesh-eating filmic feces like Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979) aka Zombie, Lewton’s masterpiece is the only zombie film that I can think of that manages to be a virtual perfect poetic meditation on Eros and Thanatos, among other things. Needless to say, the film will probably not exactly excite the sort of genre sociopath that finds themselves effortlessly enraptured by the sight of brutal deaths and cheap sleazy sex. Likewise, the film fails to fulfill any sort of philistine fantasy about frolicsome flesheaters as the (un)dead seem truly (un)dead and hardly the compatriots of rancid Romero retards. 
 
 
Rather admittedly, I used to feel that filmic voodoo zombies were the height of banality when I was much younger due to my childish reverence for Romero and sustained boredom while watching such would-be-classic as White Zombie and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, but I Walked with a Zombie has single-handedly shown me the error of my ways. In fact, as far as I am concerned, it is the only zombie film I really need, though I do not plan to completely abandon the horror (sub)genre despite the appearance of such lifeless flicks as Jim Jarmusch’s prosaically pretentious pomo zombie-comedy The Dead Don't Die (2019) where the near-elderly hipster auteur demonstrates with a dumbfounding degree of detachment his lackluster love of Romero flicks and basic bitch genre trivia. Not surprisingly, I Walked with a Zombie has been remade at least twice and, even less surprisingly, neither of these films are quite as good as the original. The first, Casa de Lava (1994) aka Down to Earth directed by Portuguese Pedro Costa, is a virtual postcolonial Tondichtung sans supernatural horror where the zombies are replaced by a comatose Cape Verdean ‘migrant worker’ who is brought back to his decaying and racially (post)apocalyptic volcanic homeland by an attractive young white nurse that tries in vain to live like the natives (and gets fucked by them in process). Unfortunately, the second sequel Tales from the Crypt Presents: Ritual (2002)—a gleefully degenerate and equally dumb exercise in schlocky CGI special effects and shockingly stupid lowbrow racial fetishism directed by some Israeli hack and co-produced by genre directors Richard Donner and Walter Hill that is surely not worthy of the name of the hit HBO horror anthology television series that was quite cynically tacked onto it—is a total insult to the legacy of Lewton’s masterpiece.  While it is surely no surprise that a stupid and sleazy remake was made with kosher cash as it is a virtual tradition of the horror genre, the fact that a perplexing European arthouse auteur like Pedro Costa would seek to rework I Walked with a Zombie is certainly strong evidence of the film's perennial artistic potency and integrity.
 
 
Although I Walked with a Zombie is unequivocally the best voodoo zombie flick ever made, it was actually not the first. Indeed, aside from the languid yet watchable Lugosi vehicle White Zombie—a pre-Code independent film based on a story by writer, occultist, and purported cannibal William Seabrook—having the distinction of being the first feature-length zombie film, it was followed up by various rather racially-insensitive low-budget voodoo horror flicks, including the zombie-free Fay Wray vehicle Black Moon (1934) directed by Roy William Neill and Ouanga (1936) aka Love Wanga aka Drums of the Jungle directed by George Terwilliger (who also penned the somewhat similarly themed ‘race film’ The Devil's Daughter (1939) directed by Arthur H. Leonard). While naturally also zombie-free due to being a documentary, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1954/1993) directed by experimental filmmaker Maya Deren makes for a nice double feature with I Walked with a Zombie. Although not altogether flattering in its depiction of Haitian vodou, accursed auteur Richard Stanley’s doc The White Darkness (2002) does a good job of demystifying both the literal and figurative darkness of the sort of folk culture/religion that is depicted in I Walked with a Zombie. Of course, a love of Lewton’s film does not require an interest in voodoo, zombies, or even horror films. Indeed, just as Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) does not require one to sympathize with petty criminals, Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969) does not require one to even be familiar with t8th-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, and Lucifer Rising (1971) does not require selling one’s soul to charming charlatan Aleister Crowley, I Walked with a Zombie does not demand one even appreciate horror or zombie films as a work of singular cinematic art that totally transcends its subject matter to provide the viewer with a virtual aesthetic high that maintains its potency on subsequent viewings. In short, the greatest film with a stupid name ever made and a cinematic work that even rivals Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) in terms of the greatest film ever produced by RKO Pictures. In fact, sorry Orson, but I have seen I Walked with a Zombie more times in one month than I have watched Welles’ masterpiece in my entire life and I do not feel the least bit ashamed of that fact.  Undoubtedly, unless Gaspar Noé gets the great gall to direct a film inspired by Lothrop Stoddard's classic text The French Revolution in San Domingo (1914), I doubt we will ever see a Caribbean-themed horror that is even vaguely as immaculately idiosyncratic as Lewton's doubly dark masterpiece.  Likewise, I doubt we will ever see a new Hollywood filmmaker that even approaches Lewton in terms of artistic integrity and great sensitivity.  A rare enigma of a film producer that cared more about his art than money and made b-movies that were inspired by artists ranging from William Hogarth to Arnold Böcklin, Lewton also broke racial stereotypes and revealed a certain deep eternal darkness in Faustian man that is so elegantly expressed in I Walked with a Zombie.  Needless to say, Faustian is more or less a member of the undead nowadays.
 
 
 
-Ty E

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