If not for a fortuitous decision made in the fall of 1941, the name Val Lewton might never have been known in Hollywood. Lewton, who began his career as a newspaper hound, fired for fabricating a story about a bunch of crated Kosher chickens prostrated and dying in the heat, eventually found more lasting fame as the author of a lurid novella, No Bed of Her Own. It was exactly the sort of dime store pulp that sold copy and caught Hollywood’s attention; more sordid fiction quickly following it. A bit of a dreamer, something of a wanderer, and thoroughly bored in general with the stalemates in his life, Lewton’s initial hope was to live the sort of romanticized exoticism his woolgathering – if highly literate and star-struck – mother had encouraged throughout his youth. Lewton was blessed with a fanciful imagination to be sure, and the gumption to pursue every avenue opening up before him. But he was equally as short-fused and prone to bouts of deep depression when those around him failed to share his interests. Lewton would have rather a bad time of it as story editor to impresario, David O. Selznick, famously calling out Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone With The Wind as a “ponderous piece of trash” during an editorial tête-à-tête with Selznick (and this, after the producer had already made his decision to film it); Lewton, suggesting Selznick he would lose the shirt off his back if he proceeded to ignore his advice.
Naysaying aside, Lewton was not very happy working for the fastidious David O. at Selznick International and elected in the fall of 1941 to make a move to RKO – then, a beleaguered poor cousin, virtually on the verge of financial ruin thanks to back to back misfires from their young protégé, Orson Welles. To Welles, the enfant terrible who had terrorized scores of radio listeners with his realistic broadcast of War of the Worlds, RKO had thrown open the doors to their once profitable kingdom, utterly convinced Welles held the keys to its future fiscal solvency after their spate of highly profitable Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals had run their course and one of their most prolific talents, producer, Pandro S. Berman had already departed for greener pastures over at MGM. Alas, to Lewton the powers that be at RKO merely tossed aside the emaciated remains of this crumbling empire with a promise of ‘showmanship in place of genius’ to denote the company’s future plans to make quick n’ dirty programmers on a shoestring budget that could capitalize on the public’s insatiable appetite for crime stories and tales of the supernatural. Lewton’s desire to produce as well as write was further hampered by the studio’s insistence on picking the titles for his latest projects. No one could have anticipated Lewton would take up this brass ring and go far beyond all expectations, transforming such idiotic titles as ‘Cat People’ and ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ into masterpieces of psychological horror. Indeed, screening the daily rushes, executives at RKO feared they had another Welles on their hands; Lewton’s approach to the material too cerebral; too highbrow for the masses.
In hindsight, they had nothing to fear and virtually everything to gain; Lewton’s logic sound; his ability to perfectly cast talent from the studio’s homegrown roster of hungry young artists, willing to give it their all, resulting in an uninterrupted series of remarkably literate and compelling horror classics that have since withstood the test of time and, in their day, made RKO a king’s ransom to rebuild their ailing coffers. Lewton’s Russian heritage bowed with his passion for recreating pseudo-European folklore as contemporary and uniquely American fright fests. Yet Lewton was disinterested in merely resurrecting the arc of Gothic chills and screams already well-established over at Universal Studios. No, Lewton’s stories were born in the concrete jungles of a bustling big city or tropical hideaway mostly prone to the tourist trade. Of the nine films eventually culled to make up Lewton’s legacy, 1943’s I Walked With A Zombie endures as an early and irrefutable high point, misjudged upon its release by The New York Times as “dull” and “disgusting” – which only made audiences want to see it more! In our present era, overly saturated in tales of the undead, we must first pause to reconsider how neither the concept, nor even the name ‘zombie’ were well-known to the movie-going public back then; despite the release of a 1932 pre-code thriller, White Zombie, that did little to propagate the idea.
And, in truth, Lewton had little to zero interest in making a ‘traditional’ zombie picture – whatever that may be; turning to screenwriters, Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray with the high concept of transforming Inez Wallace’s serialized stories into a repurposed account of Bronte’s immortal Jane Eyre, relocated to the West Indies. For creative inspiration, Lewton would rely on director, Jacques Tourneur and his verve for moodily lit film noir. As he had done previously with Cat People, Tourneur approached the subject matter with a visual elegance that belied the picture’s miniscule budget, using sparely redecorated sets left over from other pictures; adding lighting and wind effects to embellish its atmospheric qualities. As with his earlier foray, Lewton cast I Walked With A Zombie from a list of B-grade studio contract players; the biggest name likely Tom Conway – the brother of George Sanders and affectionately known around the back lot as ‘the nice George Sanders’. Conway, who had inherited the role of The Falcon from his brother, in RKO’s serialized franchise of low budget crime thrillers, was, at least for Lewton, ideally cast as the oft ambiguous and devious man of means; unscrupulous to his core, or at least seemingly so, and, enterprising to a fault. Gee, he sounds an awfully lot like George Sanders to me! But I digress.
For the part of the empathetic nurse, come to the tropics to look after a paralytic patient Lewton chose relative unknown, Francis Dee. Despite a decade’s worth of tireless work, Dee had yet to break out in the industry. In retrospect, Dee would never become a star, though she unequivocally proved herself quite the actress and gives every indication, at least in this film that superstardom might be just around the corner. The rest of the cast fell into place almost as an afterthought; James Ellison, against type as the seemingly forthright leading man, Wesley Rand, harboring a deep secret; Christine Gordon, as the undead Jessica Holland, perversely drawn into the woods by a voodoo spell; Theresa Harris as Alma, the kindly housemaid administering sound advice on this remote sugar plantation, and, Edith Barrett, as Paul and Wesley’s devoted mama, Mrs. Rand. Two African-American actors would ensure a certain air of authenticity; Sir Lancelot, herein playing the nondescript and rather insidious Calypso singer, his pleasantly warbled strains simultaneously drenched in ominous foreboding; and Darby Jones as Carrefour – at seven feet, with contact lenses inserted to cloud the dark of his eyes, a formidable presence, first glimpsed in shadowy silhouette strolling along an isolated stretch of beach with Dee’s kindly nurse, Betsy Connell. Much later, Jones proves a considerable fright to Betsy, confronting her in the dried out and rustling sugar cane fields, dotted with animal sacrifices and other paraphernalia devoted to the ritualized summoning of the dead by the true believers of this island faith.
I Walked With A Zombie is perhaps Lewton’s most elegant and proficient horror classic; Tourneur’s minimalist approach to the material, perpetually sheathing his interiors in refracted light, filtered through half drawn bamboo blinds and/or lattice work, creates interesting shadows on the wall. The film’s premise is deliberately meant to ferment and linger under a cloud of suspicion, never entirely resolved for the audience. Is the catatonic Jessica Holland suffering the ill effects of a tropical malaise or has she truly been transformed by local lore into a zombie? There is some evidence to suggest Tourneur might have preferred a more clear-cut narrative; Jessica, a lithe and willowy figure with a far-away stare, appearing to levitate one half-moon lit night, passing Betsy’s boudoir in her flowing white lingerie as she enters the secluded and darkened tower on the plantation grounds, pursued by a curious Betsy and glimpsed with split-second precision in an affecting makeup, with hollowed out sockets in place of eyes; the illusion both terrifying and fleeting, as Betsy’s terrorized screams draw Paul to her rescue; his oil lamp casting less threatening shadows across Jessica’s blank and withdrawn face. It is a deliciously terrific moment of suspense in the film; Tourneur later topping it as his camera follows Betsy and Jessica through a labyrinth of dried sugar cane rustling in the cool night air; the echoes of voodoo drums growing louder in the distance as they stumble upon several omens; an animal skull supported on a wooden dowel, then a more recent animal sacrifice dangling from the gallows of a nearby tree, and finally, the unexpected and sudden appearance of the albino-eyed Carrefour caught in the dim pall of Betsy’s flashlight.
Throughout I Walked With A Zombie runs a thread of distinct melancholy; begun almost immediately as Betsy’s arrival to the West Indies isle of Saint Sebastian is marked by a shooting star. Situated somewhere between western-cultured rationalism and ancient superstitions, the locals of this remote, but seemingly thriving tropical paradise are a strange mix; the Holland manor – the most profitable plantation in these parts - framed by imposing wrought iron gates, dense vegetation and a rather spooky water fountain in its forecourt, the statuary depicting ‘Ti-Misery’; a tortured Saint Sebastian, staring with panged suffrage into the heavens, pierced through his chest with multiple arrows. Betsy’s introduction to the Paul Holland seems promising, even if the prospects of breaking the spell of his wife’s catatonia are impossible from the outset. Throughout these establishing scenes, Lewton and Tourneur give us flashes of the dark premonitions yet to come; a pervading sense of unquantifiable evil derived mostly from little more than frightened stares, and then, a little later on, ostensibly the result of Paul and Wesley’s sibling rivalry; their unresolved guilt, mutual contempt and jealousies directing toward more sinister accusations and suspicions; miseries exacerbated by the ancient voodoo cult and worship taking place not more than a few miles away.
Interestingly, the main title sequence, depicting Frances Dee and Darby Jones strolling together along the windswept bulkhead has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in our story, nor does it serve as the penultimate denouement to our tale as told in flashback; Dee’s voiceover narration regressing the plot to Betsy’s blissful appointment to San Sebastian; a means to escape the harsh Canadian winters and serve in the capacity as a nurse. In short order, she meets Paul aboard the clipper bound for San Sebastian; the starry night viewed through the romantic porthole of a young woman’s heart. Paul’s interpretation is more skewed by his circumstances; explaining to Betsy how the flying fish are not leaping for joy, but racing to escape larger predators at sea, while the magnificent shooting star in the heavens is actually the remnants of a dying ember streaking across the night sky into oblivion. “Everything good dies here,” he suggests. Paul, a proud sugar plantation owner, insists nothing can revive or even reverse the effects of his wife’s catatonia. The most he expects from Betsy is an unquestioning devotion to Jessica’s chronic care; to know she is being looked after as he would see to himself, if only the woes of running the plantation did not occupy the bulk of his waking hours.
San Sebastian is managed by a small constituency of white settlers who, long ago, brought the slaves to work their land. The story is recalled by the carriage driver who takes Betsy to the Holland plantation house. She can only see the grandeur of the place, describing its open airy rooms with all the exhilaration of a strange woman in a faraway land. The mood remains light as Betsy meets Wesley. His congenial start masks a more personal contempt for his half-brother. But he diverts Betsy’s suspicions momentarily, talking about their mother, who runs the local dispensary, despite having no professional training as either a doctor or a nurse. As the sun sets, Betsy begins to feel the sway of the island’s mystery take hold; foreboding drums echoing in the distance and later, stirred from her bed chamber by the quiet whimpers of a woman. Following this sound of tender tears to the nearby tower, Betsy is startled by the sudden appearance of Jessica Holland. Concealed in half shadow, her visage takes on a demonic impression that causes Betsy to forget herself and scream for help. Rushing to her aid, Paul later suggests the position for which she was hired is not for any woman who scares so easily. Betsy challenges his notions that she behaved like a silly frightened child and Paul agrees to give her another chance, introducing her to Jessica’s physician, Dr. Maxwell (James Bell) in short order. Maxwell is a kindly sort, who nevertheless adds to Betsy’s mounting dread by referring to his patient as “a beautiful zombie”; a woman stricken by an incredible fever, causing irreparable damage to her spinal cord: the net result, a listless, living corpse, able to obey simple commands but possessing no free will of her own.
Paul coolly asks Betsy if she considers herself attractive and charming. When she erroneously replies she has never given either matter much thought, he curtly suggests she keeps it that way to alleviate a good many problems. Sometime later, Wesley escorts Betsy into town. He offers to buy her a drink. But the mood between them turns sour when a local musician is heard warbling a gossipy ditty about the Holland clan and Rand’s forbidden love of his brother’s wife. Wesley admits he was drawn to Jessica, but suggests Paul was hardly a devoted spouse, nor is his devotion to Jessica now as the grieving husband, anything better than an act – and not of contrition. Betsy stays with Wesley as he continues to drink himself into oblivion. At twilight, the musician returns, having added a new verse and chorus to the song with which to taunt and almost terrorize Betsy. “Oh woes, ah me; shame and sorrow for de family.”
At this juncture, Betsy is introduced to Mrs. Rand; kindhearted and comforting, she implores Betsy to use ‘her influence’ on Paul to conceal the whiskey decanter during dinner; a feeble attempt to dissuade Wesley from his perilous drinking habits. Betsy assures Mrs. Rand she holds no sway over Paul and proves as much by taking Mrs. Rand’s suggestion to him as her own; incurring a mild wrath from her employer, who reminds Betsy she was hired to look after his wife – not his brother. Even so, that evening Paul has the decanter removed, resulting in an escalated argument with Wesley; the confrontation deflated only after Paul suggests Betsy would be happier having dinner in her room instead. A few hours pass. Bored and alone, Betsy is drawn to the sound of Paul playing the piano in the parlor. She would like nothing better than to restore the peace between Paul and Wesley. Momentarily Paul weakens and begins to explain how he discovered Jessica having a torrid liaison with his brother. But the sound of native drums causes him to revert to his former reserved self; sternly ordering Betsy from the room.
The next day, Dr. Maxwell and Betsy present a united front to Paul with the daring and highly experimental option of shock therapy to revive Jessica. The treatment is risky to say the least, and Paul is seemingly torn about signing off on it. He does, however, and is wounded when, like everything else, it fails to produce the desired effect. Jessica is alive, but the same as before. Betsy is distraught and apologetic. But Paul reminds her that compassion is nothing to apologize for; she, having brought him her sympathy and an unquestioning dedication to the care of his wife; rare qualities that have since allowed him to go on for the first time in a very long while in the hope of better days ahead. Wesley is condescending; reeling against Paul’s kind words and even suggesting he is making a play for Betsy. The next afternoon, the housemaid, Alma introduces Betsy to her sister, Melisse (Vivian Dandridge) and her new baby. Indeed, despite Paul’s prophesizing about San Sebastian being an isle of death, life appears to be renewing itself in their midst, the infant taking an instant liking to Betsy. Alma hints to Betsy that the Houngan (Martin Wilkins) might be able to cure Jessica of her catatonia by performing a ritual voodoo ceremony. Betsy is unimpressed by this superstitious counsel – at first, but later, consults Mrs. Rand about the possibility of making Jessica well through such unorthodox methods. Mrs. Rand tries to discourage her. But driven by her desire to restore Jessica to Paul, Betsy skulks off with her patient in the dead of night through the swampy marshes and dried sugar cane fields, encountering the lanky zombie, Carrefour guarding the entrance to the home fort where a voodoo ceremony is already in full swing.
Betsy is even more perplexed to discover Mrs. Rand working behind the scenes, offering pragmatic alternatives to those who have come to ‘be cured’ by the Houngan. While Betsy and Mrs. Rand confer in private, Jessica inadvertently becomes the focus of the ritual; a local thrusting his sword into her arm and taking notice the wound does not bleed. Jessica is a zombie. Back at the Holland plantation Paul demands to know where Betsy and Jessica have been all night. She confides the truth and Paul is sincerely touched by the gesture; Betsy now revealing she is hopelessly in love with him. Meanwhile, the voodoo ceremonies begin to take on a more insidious tone; the creation of an effigy of Jessica beckoning her to return to the woods. Carrefour appears the next evening, intent on carrying Jessica back into the jungle. To what purpose? We are never certain, as the moment is thwarted by Betsy’s quick thinking, Paul confronting the zombie, and finally, Mrs. Rand shouting a stern command for Carrefour to retreat into the forest without his victim. The next afternoon, Paul is informed by Dr. Maxwell that the local magistrate intends to conduct an investigation into the family’s past, sure to dredge up the sordid past between Wesley and Jessica. Mrs. Rand intervenes, revealing it was she who caused Jessica’s condition. Desperate to keep her family together after learning of Jessica’s affair with Wesley, Mrs. Rand pleaded with the Houngan to turn her daughter-in-law into a zombie as punishment. When she returned home, stricken with her own shame and disbelief for having been so utterly wicked in betraying the girl, Mrs. Rand was to discover too late how a mysterious fever had already laid its claim to Jessica; her prophecy ostensibly fulfilled.
Naturally, Dr. Maxwell thinks both this cause and effect a mere coincidence, ascribing no blame to Mrs. Rand for her evil thoughts. As the Houngan’s hypnotic ceremonies intensify, Wesley begs Betsy to put an end to Jessica’s suffering with a mild poison. He really does care for Jessica. Remarkably, Betsy is not shocked by this request, though she refuses to fulfil it. Wesley apologizes, but now points to the fact Betsy is very much in love with Paul; a union that cannot come to pass while Jessica lives, even in her semi-conscious ‘undead’ state. Realizing now what must be done, Wesley kidnaps Jessica from her bedroom, carrying her into the rippling surf. He is pursued by Carrefour but to no avail. Wesley and Jessica are deliberately drowned, their bodies pulled from the rough seas by local fishermen a short while later and carried back to Holland House where a distraught Mrs. Rand, Paul and Betsy await them. A local cleric’s prayer is heard condemning the evil done to Paul by the sinful lust Jessica and Wesley shared; absolving Paul of any wrong doing and thus freeing him to pursue Betsy; the two likely to depart San Sebastian forever for parts unknown.
The finale to I Walked With the Zombie is, at once, one of the most apocalyptic and uncharacteristically hopeful of any featured in a Val Lewton horror classic. Like the end of Cat People, the spell and reign of terror plaguing the lovers is broken; set free of an eternal curse that has thus far wronged and kept them apart. However, unlike Cat People, and despite its box office success, I Walked With A Zombie did not warrant a sequel. The picture was a sizable hit for RKO, confirming for all that Lewton’s deeply disturbing visions were right on the money in tapping into the public’s fascination with the supernatural. In the few short years Lewton had left to pursue such projects with near autonomy, he became increasingly morose in these screen depictions. With each subsequent incarnation, the investment of Lewton’s psychological horror began to wear even more oppressively on his own psyche. When RKO head and staunch Lewton supporter, Charles Koerner unexpectedly died in 1946, the studio’s upper management incurred a seismic shakeup in its creative personnel. Believing the time had passed where the public would be willing to accept any more bleak and apocryphal tall tales of the supernatural, the new president effectively allowed Lewton’s contract to lapse without even the possibility of renewal.
Bitter and unemployed, Lewton would make several comebacks; first at Paramount, then MGM. But he no longer held absolute dominion; his scripts, heavily revised and subservient to the whims of executives who believed they knew better than he what would sell to the public. By 1950, Lewton had had enough of working for somebody else, entreating his one-time protégés, directors Robert Wise and Mark Robson to join him on an independent venture. It might have worked, except that a personal disagreement and creative differences caused Wise and Robson to side together, effectively ousting Lewton from the equation. Ultimately, the project languished until Universal elected to buy up the property. Although Lewton would receive a producer’s credit on Apache Drums (1951), he did not participate in its evolution beyond these preliminary stages. Lewton might have gone on working, as producer, Stanley Kramer had tendered a lucrative offer to employ him for a new film franchise over at Columbia. Alas, it was not to be; Lewton suffering an attack of gallstones, almost immediately followed by two major heart attacks. He died before year’s end at the unremarkable age of forty-two. As something of a homage, MGM would release The Bad and The Beautiful one year later with Kirk Douglas playing a B-unit producer, the parallels in Charles Schnee’s screenplay transparently inspired by the follies that had dogged Lewton’s own life and movie career.
Today, I Walked With A Zombie continues to hold a hallowed place among horror aficionados; voted the 5th best zombie movie ever made in a recent poll and frequently in the top ten since it was rediscovered on late night television by a whole new generation in the early 1980’s. Lewton would likely have taken great pride in knowing his legacy has remained in tack and very much grown in reputation in the 70+ years since. Regrettably, the Lewton classics have not fared well on home video. In 2002, Warner Home Video gave us a box set containing all 9 of the Val Lewton RKO horror classics on DVD. The results were far from stellar. In fact, virtually none had been given the necessary restoration and clean-up. In the interim, age-related debris and damage had taken their toll on these masterpieces. But Warner’s efforts were, to put it mildly, deplorable. Not only did most of the features suffer from telecine wobble and a greenish tint, but the age-related artifacts built into these prints were compounded by some truly hideous digital anomalies. In the case of I Walked With A Zombie, severe edge enhancement marred a good many scenes, wreaking havoc on all horizontal shadows created by the bamboo blinds and adding an overall image instability that rendered a goodly portion of this feature distracting and un-watchable.
Now, comes yet another wrinkle with the release of I Walked With A Zombie on Blu-ray; no, not from Warner Home Video, but a little known Japanese distributor, IVC – the discs only available through Amazon.co.jp and at a hefty price tag of roughly $45 (that’s well over $60 for Canucks like me). It is difficult, if not downright impossible to justify spending this much on single deep catalog titles, particularly as the IVC release of I Walked With A Zombie is not anywhere near up to snuff for what any hi-def release ought to be. For lack of a more complicated understanding of how the RKO video library has fallen into ‘public domain’ overseas, we refer to Warner’s own counterintuitive disavowing of these region free Blu-ray releases, citing that “Distribution rights to RKO films in Japan were sold off years before we ended up owning that library. We have no knowledge of what is being released there. We can only state that it does not involve the use of our original elements.”
Fair enough, I suppose, except that even using less than perfect reference materials to cull this new HD master, the IVC Blu-ray release of I Walked With A Zombie easily bests Warner’s embarrassingly sub-par effort. So for die hard fans of this Lewton masterpiece, and others soon to follow it from Japan, this newly created - and 'region free' HD master will have to suffice. In actuality, I was modestly impressed by how good this disc looked. Not only does it eradicate virtually all of the aforementioned digital anomalies that plagued the Warner release, but the greenish tint and telecine wobble are gone. This new remastering effort also offers us a fairly clean image with minimal built-in dirt and scratches and some mild water damage. But overall the image is considerably sharper without having been artificially enhanced. Too bad, like IVC’s earlier release of The Magnificent Ambersons, I Walked With A Zombie’s biggest flaw is its less than perfect contrast.
Everything here falls into a mid-grade register of B&W tonality. Shadow delineation is poor to non-existent. As such, there is an anemic quality to this HD presentation, although certain scenes do impress, most are flat and uninspiring. Interestingly, the image does not appear to suffer from boosted contrast and overall, fine detail is superior to anything yet seen. I am fairly certain I Walked With A Zombie on Blu-ray does not look anything like it did when the movie had its premiere, and yet, with so much basic improvement over the old Warner SD release, I am more than a little ambivalent about discounting it entirely as a viable alternative to the mess that is Warner Home Video’s DVD. The audio on the Blu-ray is 2.0 PCM and actually quite solid with minimal hiss and pop. Of course, we lose the commentary track that came with the Warner release; the IVC’s only extra, a double-sided fold-out poster printed in both English and Japanese.
Like The Magnificent Ambersons before it, this disc was a test run for me. I do not know if I will be committing to others for two reasons – first, the stifling cost to import them over here, and second, because the quality isn’t exactly setting the world afire. Yes, I want Cat People, Suspicion, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and, the host of other RKO deep catalog titles already advertised by IVC as part of their upcoming lineup to add to my hi-def home video collection; but not simply to own them in another disc format; rather, to improve upon the overall quality of the editions I already own. In all honesty, I Walked With A Zombie has not looked any better on home video. Even with all its flaws, the IVC edition is the one to own. That isn’t saying much and I would sincerely encourage Warner Home Video, or the Warner Archive to get busy reissuing these Val Lewton classics in hi-def on this side of the pond. Since they own better archive materials the resulting discs could only be an improvement, n’est pas? Bottom line: recommended for now, but with multiple caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)