Tuesday, 20 August 2013

I Walked with a Zombie - review

1943 (USA)

2009 Manga Films DVD R(2) - Yo Anduve con un Zombie

Contains spoilers.

The modern zeitgeist associates the zombie with blood, carnage, gratuitous gore and world ending apocalypse, but we know that's not the whole story. Before Romero, Fulci and Matheson zombies were a gentler more sedate proposition; they were folklore and whisper from the dark new world, no less frightening and mysterious, just of a time someone didn't need to have their stomach ripped open and their intestines feasted upon to get the heart racing.

I Walked with a Zombie is a movie of such a time. A refreshing palette cleanser from all the horror and gore I've recently indulged in, director Jacques Tourneur's atmospheric vision of life in the Caribbean is a beautiful reminisce of when getting dressed for dinner, never arguing in front of a woman, and using the term mental case to describe someone with was the acceptable behaviour.

Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is the narrator; young and wistful, she recalls the time she accepted a position as nurse for the wife of wealthy sugar cane plantation owner, Paul Holland (Tom Conway) on the (fictitious) island of  St. Sebastian and got more than she bargained for. Paul's wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon) you see, is a zombie. A severe illness left her without will; lifeless and unable to communicate. She's still very much alive so to speak, with a heart beat and pulse, but the wife Paul remembers is gone and only a shell remains.

Producer Val Lewton was given the studio-dictated title and together with writers Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray came up with a Jane Eyre / Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca inspired West Indies mystery/love story, capturing the essence of post-colonial island life; of social stratification and a people emerging from slavery. On the surface the Holland's island life seems idyllic and successful but Betsy soon starts seeing through the cracks; Paul believes his temperament dark and destructive and blames himself for Jessica's malaise, Paul's half-brother Wesley (James Ellison) is melancholic and envious, finding solace in the local rum and all the time their mother (Edith Barret) has removed herself from their affairs on a mission to persuade the natives to accept western medecine and doctrine.

The characters and their dynamic is the main drive for the movie. Behind the stiff upper lip is a web of pain, discomfort, accusation and secrets, and Tourneur handles all the complex suppressed emotions with great insight. It's obvious by the end why characters were motivated to do what they do, or say what they say but watching for the first time, the narrative unveils itself with great subtlety and intelligence. It's not all success though, for as much the characters are deep and believable Betsy and Paul's relationship feels forced, harried and quite unnecessary. If anything the film would have worked just as well, if not better, had her motivations not been so contrived. I'm guessing someone pointed out there had to be a love element and they shoehorned it in; a pity.

For all that the film is a complex character drama, it is still a horror, of sorts. Falling for Paul, and thinking it the best way to please him, Betsy turns to increasingly unorthodox methods in her search to find a cure for Jessica, and this eventually leads to a visit to the houmfort (voodoo hounfour  - voodoo temple/hut/clearing). The houmfout sequences are a delight; there's no parody or westernisation, just provocative music and ritual, and it's shocking and alien even to my modern eye. Her visit also sets in motion a darker tone, as the houmfort practitioners convinced Jessica is the walking dead set out to get her back for further study. First they send the towering Carre-Four (Kalfu), the Haitian vodou guardian/demon/Papa Legba Loa spirit of the houmfort to retrieve her then later the ritual leader uses an voodoo effigy to command her. Just as the early scenes were a journey into early 20th Century post-colonial life, the voodoo scenes really are a vision of life over the fence.

There is deliberate ambiguity to the zombie/s. Jessica appears the modern metaphor, yet the later scenes hint of more. Mrs. Rand confesses to placing the curse on Jessica as she partook in a voodoo ritual after discovering she was about to run away with her younger son though this is dismissed, and the effigy magic does appear genuine.  It's a heady mix of traditional voodoo hypnotised, with something far darker and we're not ever offered a final explanation. Carre-Four is a dark menacing figure who also feels entirely unnatural. In fact I'd kind of assumed he was a zombie before researching his role as the vodou crossroads and his actions shuffling across the Holland's estate, arms raised were certainly evocative of where zombies in the movies went. Ok, neither may actually be reanimated dead but it's heritage zombie and seeped in voodoo, magic and ambiguity and it doesn't matter.

The version reviewed is the Spanish release Yo Anduve con un Zombie and the only R(2) copy I could find on DVD. It's a passable albeit noisy black and white print though this was to be expected and doesn't detract from the experience. It has a a clear English audio track alongside a Spanish dub and has aged remarkably well. 

A brooding gothic drama of repression and lies, capturing a way of life now consigned to history this is a great film irrespective of its place in the zombie story. The fact it's also a zombie pioneer with an undoubted place in establishing the zombie movie template make it an important film for anyone interested in Z-history. With deligtful cinematrography and memorable intelligent narrative and pacing it's a black and white moody masterpiece that holds up extremely well. Recommended viewing, 7/10.


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