Horror is a genre of excess. Whether it’s four Cenobites tearing a man apart with chains in Hellraiser, or Peter Jackson’s nerdy hero slaughtering hordes of zombies with a lawn mower in Dead Alive, gallons of gore and baths of blood are par for the course in horror movies. Though many fans of the genre appreciate the hacking of limbs, others make the argument that the power of suggestion is far greater than force feeding guts and grue to an audience. Subtlety and suggestion massage the viewer’s mind, as he fills in the blanks himself. But when does subtle become too subtle? I found myself asking that question as I watched I Walked with a Zombie.
When the people at RKO handed producer Val Lewton the title of this film, they probably expected him to produce a piece that would be as sensationalistic and over the top as it suggested. But Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur had other plans. Taking a script by Curt Siodmak, who wrote the Universal classic The Wolf Man, the two collaborated with Ardel Wray and stripped down Siodmak’s writing to create a piece that focused more on atmosphere and suggestion than outright chills and monsters. The movie begins, oddly enough, with a throwaway scene that has two shadowy characters walking down a beach. The woman says, "I walked with a zombie" and after giving a vague explanation, the scene shifts. Kind hearted nurse Betsy has been hired by the Holland family to take care of Jessica, whose husband Paul lives with her in the Caribbean. On the boat ride there, Paul tries to dispel Betsy of the idea that anything in the world is beautiful. It turns out he has good reason to do so.
Paul’s wife has essentially become a zombie. She’s mute and walks vacant eyed throughout the house. And herein lies my main problem with this movie. That’s basically all she does. So, she’s a zombie? Who cares? She’s a catatonic who poses no threat to anybody. And she’s one of only two zombies in the movie! The other, Carrefour, is an opposing, shirtless black man whose eyes literally pop out of his head. But even with his position as the watcher of the crossroads, he does nothing to terrorize anyone. He just walks real slowly. Yes, there are hints throughout the film that voodoo is a powerful alternate religion on the island. The movie even presents a pretty nifty full fledged voodoo ceremony, to which Betsy brings Jessica in hopes of curing her. But even then, nothing happens that would really scare anybody. The wind blows. The drums pound out their beat. Even having the characters walk through a corn field, a location that the original Planet of the Apes used to create great tension, Tourneur cannot muster up any
real fright. Subtlety has quietly removed everything horrifying and replaced it with images suggesting horror that never comes.
Then I looked at I Walked with a Zombie from the other angle: as a family drama. As a calypso singers spells out definitively in song, this is one dysfunctional family. Paul’s brother Wesley fell in love with Jessica. Paul tormented her into her catatonia. The mother is involved in chicanery and maybe the voodoo cult. Nurse Betsy falls in love with Paul, who tries to send her home to Canada (?) so he won’t destroy her too. Betsy wants to cure Jessica to please Paul, even though it would hurt her to do so. In the final scene, Wesley takes matters into his own hands with Jessica. But whom is he trying to help? Is he being a good brother? Is he being a humanitarian in bringing Jessica to her final rest? Is he only out for himself? The movie never really establishes an answer. And it really irks me that I’ll never know for sure whether Betsy went back to Canada or not. Looked at this way, RKO really should have titled the movie The Young and the Zombies.
As if I wasn’t already disappointed with this movie that’s been revered as a classic, after watching it I checked out the extras. There’s the run of the mill trailer. And there’s the second worst commentary I’ve ever heard on a disc. Two British gentlemen who have no clear cut reason to be discussing this film deliver the most unusual commentary I’ve ever heard on a film. The things they prattle on about are beyond explanation, and really have to be heard to receive true justice. One of them even states that in his hometown, to this day, the locals sing the calypso song once a week and change the words around! Which leads me to wonder just how many pints the locals consume to be singing a calypso song from a 60+ year old movie and revising the words to fit the neighbors! It’s a shame that fans of this supposed seminal film didn’t get a decent commentary from maybe David J. Skal or Rudy Behlmer.
By definition, horror is supposed to produce feelings of dread and terror in its audience. After digesting I Walked with a Zombie and analyzing it, I cannot honestly say that it qualifies as a horror flick. Yes, it’s got two zombies in it. Jessica doesn’t even bleed, which is a tell tale sign that she’s a reanimated corpse. But the zombies do nothing horrific, and in the end, I’m left with what amounts to a soap opera on a Caribbean island. If you’re a fan of zombies or horror in general, think twice before watching this film.