As much as this is Tourneur’s film, credit belongs to producer Val Lewton who turned the film into a modern retelling of Jane Eyre. The pulpy title is misleading, because acting aside this is a minor masterpiece of style and atmosphere. The film never relies on cheap scare tactics or exploitation of setting and characters to draw scares or atmosphere. Even the soundtrack defies expectations of the time period, and is composed almost entirely of chanting, drumming and the ambiance sound of the island. It is however J. Roy Hunt’s black and white cinematography that makes this film work. From the almost constant bombardement of venician blinds indoors to the crackling light of fire on the character’s faces, the film has a uniquely eerie flavour to it.
The choice to adapt this story to Bronte’s novel was rather ingenius, and is one of the first steps in raising the film above it’s B-movie status. The adaptation is just close enough so that it is familiar in general narrative and character. It brings both strength and familiarity to the plot. Considering the short running time, this helps the audience quickly fall into what is happening on the screen because while the differences are enough that you won’t immediately notice the connection, you feel somehow that you already know and feel for these characters. It gives them a certain sense of depth that would not be attainable otherwise, because the actor’s are not particularly talented and again the short running time allows little room for development.
The atmosphere in this film is thick, and steamy. Slowly the audience is riled up through a few comments on the strange superstition and voodoo religion of the island, and slowly the filmmakers build on these fears to allow the audience to fall into story. It’s almost as if we are Betsy, as we go through the same steps of disbelief to uncertainty as she does. The ball is in our court, and we are never told wether or not zombies do exist. It only adds to the intensity of the film, because we are allowed to fill in the gaps, regardless if Mrs. Holland is a zombie or not the film is frightening in it’s non-commitment. One of the best scenes in perhaps all of horror history takes place when Betsy brings Mrs. Holland to the voodoo priest. She sneaks out of her home, and through the overtowering sugar cane they make their way to the meeting. You can hear the sounds of the music in the distance combined with the eerie-ness of the cane moving in the wind, as they pass by animal sacrifices and Carrefour, the guard at the cross roads. It is the voodoo rituals that make this film worth remembering, as they are frightening while being somehow objective. The film brings context to the religion’s emergence and it’s ties to slavery, and the still prevailing emotions related to it. Women still cry when a child is born, and they still dance when someone dies, and is free of the imprisonment of their life.
I Walked with a Zombie is a rare film that is worth seeing. Thanks to Lewton’s support Tourneur would go on to make the much acclaimed Out of the Past (a film that I personally do not like very much, but I owe it another viewing), which tonally is very similar to this one. While these films were widely disregarded in their day as genre b-pics, they are worth the time to see and appreciate. Watch this in the dark of night, and I would be surprised if you’re hair doesn’t rise on end.