Friday, October 16, 2009

Reeling Backward: "I Walked with a Zombie"

All of the attention to zombies lately -- "Zombieland" being the most obvious example -- got me to thinking about the cinematic roots of the walking undead.

I remember in some review or article in the past year or so, I referenced George A. Romero's 1968 "Night of the Living Dead," and wrote that Romero more or less created the zombie flick. Some fans of old-school zombie flicks from the 1940s, and even earlier, wrote in to set me straight.

I still stand by my description of Romero as the granddaddy of zombie movie makers, since he was the first to portray mass hordes of them feasting upon the living, and threatening to take over the world. Prior incarnations tended to only feature one or two zombies, and they certainly didn't stumble around with a craving for human brains.

"I Walked with a Zombie" from 1943 is a perfect example. There are exactly two zombies in the movie: A beautiful white woman and an African man. The man is super-skinny and has memorably bugged-out eyes, but the woman doesn't look any different from you or me -- other than the fact that she doesn't talk, or even seem to think.

The backdrop of the story is voodoo, as is often the case with these early zombie flicks. A young nurse named Betsy (Frances Dee) is employed to care for a plantation owner's catatonic wife in the West Indies. On the ship journey from Canada, she meets the owner himself -- a tall, handsome gentleman with a dark mood. Paul Holland (Tom Conway) advises Betsy not to fall in love with the rustic beauty of the islands: "Everything good dies here -- even the stars," he says.

The movie, directed by Jacques Tourneur, is viewed now mostly for its campiness, which cheesy dialogue like that which I just quoted does little to dispel. Another howler is when the cheeky younger brother Wesley (James Ellison) describes his big bro as "quite the Byronic character" -- doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? And I laughed out loud when Betsy tells one of the maids, "You have to turn away from a horse to lead him," and the servant responds that men are very much the same.

Still, the film is not as schlocky as you might expect. Tourneur shows a great eye for composition, and uses the black-and-white contrasts to great effect. The cinematography was by J. Roy Hunt, who had quite a prolific B-movie career, including the original "Mighty Joe Young."

The story is a fairly preposterous love triangle. Betsy learns that Paul's wife, Jessica, became catatonic after a huge confrontation in which Wesley, who had fallen in love with her, planned to run away with her. Jessica came down with a fever, and never truly awoke. Edith Barrett also pops up as Wesley and Paul's mother, who is a physician practicing to help the indigenous island people, and has more insight into the voodoo ways than she lets on.

Betsy and Paul soon fall in love, but Betsy cannot bring herself to break up a marriage -- even one between a man and a woman sleepwalking through life. She secretly takes Jessica to the voodoo ritual, where the natives are suspicious of the woman. A sword dancer pierces her arm with his weapon, and they are shocked when she does not bleed. It turns out Jessica has been turned into a zombie.

Things get a little confusing here. Despite abhorring Jessica's state, the voodoo folks apparently have their own zombie, Carrefour (Darby Jones), whom they send to the plantation to abscond with Jessica. For what reason, I can't imagine -- do they want to have zombie mate for Carrefour? In any case, things end tragically.

"I Walked with a Zombie" is barely more than an hour in length, and despite its camp-worthy dialogue and hammy acting, I actually enjoyed it as an early progenitor of the modern zombie flick.

3 stars

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