If we're going to make any sense of the RKO B-picture unit headed by producer Val Lewton in the 1940s, we're going to have to get one fact straight, right now. For all his considerable freedom in making the movies he wanted to make, with very little (though often very critical) oversight from the studio, there was one place where he was stuck: many, perhaps in fact all, of his movie titles came down from the executives ready-made and test-marketed, and there was nothing he could do to change them. He could make any damn movie he wanted under that title, and often did so - and that is how we come up with I Walked with a Zombie, which I guarantee is not the movie you think it is, if you haven't seen it. Even according to the extremely different standards of the zombie genre as it stood in 1943, compared to today, I Walked with a Zombie is stunningly weird. The title comes from a magazine article by Inez Wallace, purchased by RKO for Lewton's use; he found the content to be uninteresting, and directed legendary horror screenwriter Curt Siodmak, later to be replaced by neophyte Ardel Wray, to go in a different direction, and not at all the lurid, sensationalistic direction suggest by the name. Even knowing that in 1943, zombie movies were more mood-driven tales involving white people getting on the wrong side of voodoo priests on remote sugar plantation islands, and not so much apocalyptic festivals of gut-munching, I defy anyone to guess beforehand that the producer was interested in making a zombie-themed adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

Any suspicions that the viewer might maintain that this movie, this movie with "zombie" right there in the title, will be primarily interested in horror are quickly squashed by elegant, damn near literary opening titles, followed by the shot of two people walking on a beach, as a narrator (Frances Dee) abstractly recalls the time she walked with a zombie, in the tones with which one might foggily assert that last night they dreamed of Manderlay again. From this unabashedly Romantic opening gesture, we turn to a snowy night in British Columbia, as that same narrator, Betsy Connell, is offered a nursing assignment in the West Indies, tending to the sick wife of a sugar baron. The promise of palm trees and blue water is more than Betsy can resist, and in the space of a cut, she's on a boat in the Caribbean, cooing about the flying fish and luminscent sea, only to be gruffly rebuked by her new employer, Paul Holland (Tom Conway), that all the things she sees as being signs of tropical paradise are in fact the emblems of a world full of agony and death. Paul would have been all about Werner Herzog.

Once safely arrived on the island of Saint Sebastian, Betsy quickly learns how far afield her enthusiasm for this island paradise has been: Paul's wife Jessica (Christine Gordon) isn't just sick, she's in a state of complete psychological detachment, capable of doing nothing whatsoever that she isn't directed to do by others. And this isn't the worst thing in the Holland home: there is an unspoken, but pungent tension between Paul and his alcoholic younger half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), which the local townsfolk reveal is due to the romantic rivalry the men over Jessica, shortly before she was taken by the fever that reduced her to her catatonic state. Betsy sets herself to finding a cure for her employer's wife - a perverse way of expressing her growing feelings of love for him - and is told by the two white medical experts on the island, Dr. Maxwell (James Bell), and the brothers' own mother, Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), that it's hopeless. But increasing exposure to the nightly drums of the non-white islanders, descended from African slaves brought over by the first Hollands, has convinced Betsy that white people's medical science isn't the only game in town, and there might be something in this word "zombie" she's been hearing all over the island to explain Jessica's weird state. This ends up revealing even darker secrets about the demented family drama of the Holland-Rands, ones that lead to the kind of tragedy pretty much inevitable in stories like these.

It is probably the case that even by Lewton Unit standards, where horror was more a flavoring than a genre, I Walked with a Zombie is at best a horror film because there's not really much else you can do about a story where one of the main characters is probably a member of the living dead. Unless she's not. For in that way too, the film is an achievement even by Lewton's standards, in that it never, ever becomes absolutely clear whether the least bit of paranormal activity is going on; only one piece of definitive evidence is ever furthered (Jessica's arm does not bleed when skewered), and that's a wobbly foundation on which to build certainty. Typically, the films lean one way or another; even in the case of the great Cat People, a masterpiece of ambivalence for 90% of its running time, there's a scene that leaves pretty much no doubt at all what's been going on all along.

Instead of true horror, then, what the film has to offer is atmosphere by the bucketful: and sometimes that atmosphere gets to be awfully thick with ethereal, uncanny imagery, such as the simply magnificent sequence of Betsy smuggling Jessica to the voodoo meeting place, through a long lateral tracking shot across an unpleasantly wide and empty patio, across fields of sugar can with a dead animal hanging from a tree (the one outright horrifying image in the film). Or the shots of Darby Jones standing with really eerie make-up as the mute zombie Carrefour, lead henchman of the voodoo priest. Or the under-lit interior of the plantation, especially the stone staircase that feels wildly too Gothic to belong in the rest of the house (I imagine it was a leftover set, but I don't want to know for sure what it came from - have to retain some movie magic, even we critics), with pleasantly disorienting results.

The second of Lewton's productions for RKO, it was also the second directed by Jacques Tourneur, and that's pretty much the reason why this atmosphere is so particular: though the film is hampered by the absence of Cat People D.P. Nicholas Musuraca - for this picture, the cinematography was to be done by J. Roy Hunt, a sturdy kind of studio man who doesn't appear to have shot any other horror films in his entire 37-year career - and that means that the luxuriant blacks of that picture are largely absent. Even so, Tourneur's mood-driven approach still works out in unexpected ways; the Expressionist influence to the way shots are set up remains there, but the mechanics of the shots are more Impressionistic, with the floating camera movements and use of fairy tale moonlighting reminiscent less of the Germans of the '20s, the avowed influence on nearly all important black-and-white American horror, than the French of the '30s - I should happily go so far as to claim that, allowing the holes in my knowledge of the man's work, I Walked with a Zombie is the Parisian-born director's French-est horror film, begging your pardon for the grotesque hyphenate. The combination of poetic gauziness, Romantic detachment, and high artifice that make the film so unique in its genre, is to be found time and again in the works of directors like Renoir or early Carné, and while that tends to leave some folks finding it mired in befuddling, zombie-free aimlessness that other prominent pre-Romero zombie films such as White Zombie don't suffer from, it pays dividends in other places: mostly those involving the roiling family tragedy, too plaintive to be called "meldrama", surrounding the characters.

And to be fair, who the hell expects that kind of thing from a movie titled I Walk with a Zombie? Yet it's very much the reason that film works so brilliantly in its own, private register. The performances are certainly not as strong as they are in Cat People, and neither Dee nor Conway has any real idea how to support the abrupt plot point that Betsy falls in love with the cold, shady Paul in such short order. But the actors are good enough to keep the movie from foundering, and the script is quite strong, expressing the naïve Betsy's slow rise to understand that things around her aren't so placid and paradisaical as she'd expected - there's a terrific early moment in which black maid Alma (Theresa Harris, easily my favorite performance) recounts the story of how her ancestors were brought over in chains, to which Betsy blithely comments that they arrived at such a beautiful place, and in a movie that's generally a lot more respectful towards its featured black performers than you'd be inclined to expect from a '43 picture, it's already clear that we're supposed to understand this as hopeless optimism in the face of grim, violent reality - as a mirror to the film's own descent into darker and darker scenes, with increasing atmospheric foreboding; the way that she comes to realise that there is real horror and suffering in the world is constructed right into the film's slow buildup of uncanny, unnatural elements. It is a film which in both its narrative and imagery is about the death of innocence; a bit heavy-handed, true, but buried as it is in Tourneur's refined, elegant style, even this thematic assertiveness can't overwhelm a movie that might well be the classiest of all the Lewton-produced horror pictures.

Reviews in this series
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942)
I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur, 1943)
The Leopard Man (Tourneur, 1943)
The Seventh Victim (Robson, 1943)
The Ghost Ship (Robson, 1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (von Fritsch/Wise, 1944)
The Body Snatcher (Wise, 1945)
Isle of the Dead (Robson, 1945)
Bedlam (Robson, 1946)