Criterion Prediction #110: I Walked With a Zombie, by Alexander Miller
Title: I Walked With a Zombie
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cast: Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Christine Gordon, James Ellison
Synopsis: Betsy (Dee) is hired by wealthy plantations owner Paul Holland (Conway) to care for his wife Jessica (Gordon), who seems to be in a catatonic state. Once relocated to their estate, Betsy is at a loss in dealing with Jessica’s condition. Matters are complicated when she falls in love with Paul and gets drawn into the culture of voodoo permeating the island.
Critique: Cat People is endeared by many as the definitive film for producer Val Lewton, but his follow-up, I Walked With a Zombie is, in my opinion, the best of the producer’s horror cannon. It’s literate, assured, concise, atmospheric, and like all of the Lewton chillers, genuinely terrifying.
There’s an ambitious element that drives this woozy tale of romance and the undead. Part lies in the fully realized story (inspired by Jane Eyre), further driven by the pragmatic depiction of the cultural practices that beget the supernatural.
Voodoo ceremonies and even the zombies themselves are portrayed with a sense of respect. As a horror film, I Walked With a Zombie is one of the most objective, and it’s exploration of the undead unlike any other. Zombies aren’t scary because they’re monsters; they’re scary because you could walk into one at night, or you’ll see their shadow through your living room window. It’s the possibility of being in a place where the undead are real. Lewton’s emphasis on the presentation of the material and how it conveys a palatable sense of fear is what makes these movies so enduring.
I Walked With a Zombie is steeped in its titular folklore it plays out like a confluent fever dream; Tourneur and Lewton command such a refined sense of mood throughout which enables a striking sense of unenforced horror. Acting as producer, Lewton also presided over the screenplay. His fascination with death complements the story wonderfully. In a tale of the undead, what could be more liberating than embracing death itself? There’s no good vs. evil. There aren’t any hordes of ghoulish zombies being dropped by a barrage of miraculously convenient headshots. The world isn’t going to end, and there isn’t a gun in sight. In the current oversaturated market of the living dead, this sixty-nine-minute film from 1943 is like a breath of fresh air.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: It’s great that Criterion released Cat People, but I could make an argument for all of Lewton’s chillers to get the Criterion treatment, and I Walked With a Zombie would be a solid, and coincidentally canonical follow-up to their Cat People release. It doesn’t seem like Criterion is going to do a Lewton set, or double features the way the Warner DVD collection compiled the series; if that were the case, it would have already happened. With Cat People, Criterion transplanted the audio commentary from the Warner DVD to their Blu-ray (along with the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in The Shadows) and hopefully, they do the same with Steve Jones and Kim Newman’s commentary track available on the Warner DVD double feature of I Walked With a Zombie and The Body Snatcher.