Thursday, April 27, 2017

Rum, Brandy and Pineapple Juice With a Twist of Lime, or Thoughts on Val Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie

A traditional gothic like Wuthering Heights (but with zombies) from director Jacques Tournier, and producer Val Lewton, I Walked With a Zombie (1943) is a horror movie or psychological thriller with that familiar undercurrent of unresolved sexual tension twisting into something darker that’s present in their other two films; Cat People (1942) and The Leopard Man (1943).  Francis Dee stars as Betsy Connell, a nice Canadian nurse who takes a post in the West Indies caring for the invalid wife of brooding plantation owner Paul Holland and his equally handsome younger stepbrother Rand.  Betsy soon learns that the somnambulant Mrs. Rand has been zombified, but she’s not the bitey kind, (you can thank George A. Romero for adding the cannibalism aspect), she’s a traditional Caribbean voodoo zombie, more like a hypnotized sleepwalker who can never wake up.  There’s also the implication that the plantation is using zombies as slave labor, that is, if you believe they’re actually zombies.
Like all of a Val Lewton’s movies, the supernatural elements are ambiguous; so much is left up to the viewer.  The story is presented, and the audience is left to draw their own conclusion in an interesting collaboration between the filmmakers and the audience.  Expect the stylish composition and atmospheric shadows, amidst Calypso interludes and jungle drums.  There’s also a dated colonial racism, not overtly or distractingly but it’s inherent in the setting and the genre. 
With a taut screenplay by Curt Siodmark of The Wolf Man (1941), the movie clocks in at a very economical 68 minutes.

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