Wednesday, December 9

Some quick thoughts on I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

This is the oldest film to have graced the pages of BoGD and it's an undeniable classic. Betsy Collins (Frances Dee), a nurse who travels to a secluded West Indies island to care for the catatonic wife of a wealthy plantation owner, finds the beauty of the tropics a thin veil for the deep entrenchment of mysticism and voodoo in the once-slave population. The owner, Paul (Tom Conway), is a man of worldly flare yet immense sorrow over the cognitive loss of his wife while his business partner, Wesley (James Ellison), sinks only further into alcoholism. Wesley's mother (Edith Barrett) harbors a dangerous secret involving the ill woman and the ritualistic voodoo practices held in the tall fields of the plantation.

Director Jacques Tourneur produces some astoundingly moody black and white photography, but what's most interesting is how the film treats race for its time. The black population is still deeply affected by the circumstances of their ancestors' forced arrival to the island and Betsy is naive to their plight only seeing the topical beauty of the place and its people. Through exchanges between her and these "natives", one gets the impression of a boiling tension just below the surface.

The central white characters, beside Betsy, are either troubled or clearly broken souls. Paul is not only in perpetual sadness by his wife's zombie-like state but also sees the island a place of sadness, death, and decay. Wesley is merely drifting through life as a worsening lush with his drinking leading to devastating results. There is a small measure of the white characters trying to dispel the voodoo elements as simplistic hocus pocus, but the display of these practices isn't trumped up for morbid curiosity (at least in horror film terms) and the underlying realization to the mystery seems the outcome of otherworldly rites as a way of crippling the old guard's hold on the island. Some have said the more obvious elements (like the insanely creepy sentinel Carre-Four) that make I Walked with a Zombie fall into the horror genre feel like a sidenote, but the horror rests in the way the island's black arts influence and envelop its central characters. What comes around, goes around...

As for Warner's DVD, paired in a double feature with Robert Wise's The Body Snatcher (1945), picture quality shows a vast clean-up, but the film didn't receive a painstaking restoration. Flecks, pops, slight frame fluttering, lite nitrate damage, and one really bad tear are apparent throughout, but this presentation looks far superior to Manga Films' Spanish DVD which was previously the only other digital release available.

Warner Home Video - U.S. | Manga Films (Yo anduve con un zombie) - Spain
4x3/progressive | 4x3 (stretched and zoomed in)/interlaced
English 1.0 on both


The Vicar of VHS said...

One of my all-time faves. Plus, it scooped the whole "Pride and Prejudice with Zombies" phenomenon by more than half a century--a zombie movie based on the classic Jane Eyre!

This is a great dvd. The other feature, THE BODY SNATCHER, is another of my all-time faves, with what's for my money Boris Karloff's greatest performance.

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks a whole lot for this suggestion, I was not aware that it was directed by Jaques Tornier, he is the same guy who directed the excelent "Night of the Demon" on which Raimi's Drag me to Hell was inspired on.

Night of the Demon is also a very moody atmospheric piece, highly recommend you check that one out at some point, if you havent already. If you want to know what I thought about it, check out my review for it here:

James Gracey said...

Thanks for your review: I adore this film. Interesting what you said about how the filmmakers treat issues of race too - for even the zombie character is treated with dignity and sympathy. Great film.

Anthony1138 said...

Oh wow, I didn't even know about Night of the Demon. It sounds interesting. I'll have to check that out soon.

I only discovered it a few years ago after reading Jamie Russell's excellent Book of the Dead, but I Walked with a Zombie is one of my favorite "classic" horror films. It's up there with Dracula and Frankenstein. Definitely a must see for any self-respecting horror fan. you dare tread upon the staircase?

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