I Walked with a Zombie is a variation on Jane Eyre, so it seemed fitting to visit it again in the aftermath of seeing the new adaptation of Jane Eyre. A Canadian nurse is assigned to care for the sick wife of a plantation owner on a West Indies island. She discovers that the wife is mentally ill, and some think the wife has been turned into a zombie.
The fact that the nurse is Canadian has an unstated significance in the racial scheme of the film, which is an unusual one for a Hollywood movie of this era. There are several levels of historical transgression buried on the West Indies isle, but the original sin is the sin of slavery. The nurse is innocent of that crime of the forefathers, coming from a country that never practiced slavery. One of the remarkable things about I Walked with a Zombie is the degree to which the black characters are given a voice and an autonomy, even if none of them has a starring role. This was a rarity in the Hollywood of the Jim Crow era. Perhaps the fact that producer-writer Val Lewton was Russian and director Jacques Tourneur was French made them more comfortable dealing directly with the dark side of American history.
Theresa Harris had a long career in Hollywood, usually playing maids, as she does here. But she gets a lot of lines in this film, and she talks the nurse into taking Mrs. Rand to the houmfort to see if the voodoo priest can cure her. Harris also makes a brief but telling impact in Tourneur’s great film noir, Out of the Past (1947). Above she mocks the newcomer nurse in response to chiding from another servant, and below she draws a map to the houmfort in spilled sugar.
The calypso singer Sir Lancelot also plays an important role in the story. His song reveals the secret shame of the Rand family that lies behind Mrs. Rand’s ailment. When he discovers that a member of the Rand family has heard him singing, he stops and apologizes immediately, but later he makes sure that the nurse hears the rest of the lyrics, moving closer and closer in a threatening manner. He is a figure both courtly and menacing. Val Lewton also used Sir Lancelot in The Ghost Ship (1943) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), although his roles in those movies aren’t as important.
One of the nice little details in the film is that the eerie weeping that the nurse thinks comes from the wife is actually the weeping of Theresa Harris at the birth of a baby. As Paul Holland explains, “That’s where our people came from. From the misery and pain of slavery. For generations they found life a burden. That’s why they still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial … I’ve told you, Miss Connell: this is a sad place.” The next day, we meet the baby being cooed over by the local women. They don’t seem to be weeping anymore.
We are given no reason to believe that the character of Carrefour, played by Darby Jones, is not a zombie, although as in all of Lewton’s horror films, the reality or unreality of the supernatural element is never settled. Carrefour is the closest thing to an actual horror element in this otherwise mostly just eerie film. I don’t think I’ve seen him in any other films, so I’m not sure how much of this bug-eyed look is the result of makeup and performance.
The visit to the houmfort is probably the most famous scene in the movie. The dancing and ritual have a naturalistic feel, mostly free of Hollywood glitz and fantasy. We are seeing the ritual from the point of view of the participants. It’s an electrifying moment.
“This is a sad place.” In the end, even the alien figure of Carrefour becomes a figure of forlorn loss. There is an elegiac feel to the final scenes, in which the descendants of slaves witness the sins of the past come home to roost on the descendants of the masters.