I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE


 

 

This melancholy tale of a nurse and her experience in the Caribbean is accented by cogent script writing by Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray, and Val Lewton; moody cinematography by J. Roy Hunt, and a sensitive music score by Roy Webb. The Direction is by Jacques Tourneur, and the editing by Mark Robson. The melodramatic title is via RKO Film Executives who were trying to cash in on the horror film boom that the Universal film studio had brought about with their various Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolfman movies in the 1930s-1940s. RKO had set up a special unit under Val Lewton for the production of these films. This web site discusses both the film I Walked with A Zombie and its producer, Val Lewton.

About the film

"RKO executives really out-did themselves when they came up with this title and told Lewton to "make a film to go with it." But in what was to become standard procedure for Lewton, he used the title and spooky setting as a cover to make the story he wanted to, a re-working of Jane Eyre."
From Ken Yousten's Val Lewton Home Page

Val Lewton was given the title "I Walked With A Zombie" by the RKO front office, who had drawn it from an American Weekly article of the same name by writer Inez Wallace. The result of that meeting was a depressed state for Lewton. Writer Carl Siodmak, who had written the screenplays for Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman, Ghost of Frankenstein, and The Invisable Woman, the novel Donovan's Brain, among others, worked with writer Ardel Wray to flesh out a theme based upon Haitian voodoo. Mark Robson, Zombie's editor, recalled Lewton being depressed one day, then happily confidant the next, announcing to his crew that they were going to make a West Indies version of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Dedicated to avoiding the formula that pervaded the Universal horror films, and challenged by the small budgets given him by RKO, Lewton enlisted the help of his entire crew in shaping up an artistic film that would go beyond its B-film origins.

After Siodmak delivered the first version of the script for Zombie, which, according to later interviews, was influenced by the paintings of Oscar Kokoschka, it was then reworked by Wray. She was a young woman Lewton had hired from out of RKO's Young Writer's Project, and is the only woman credited to have worked on a Lewton produced film. The daughter of actress Virginia Brissac and actor-director John Griffith Wray, she had started in the RKO reading department. After Wray, Lewton himself reworked the script a third time, by which time Siodmak had left the production, and according to descriptions given by Siodmak much later (he never saw the actual finished movie) it bears considerable differences from Siodmak's first draft.

 

One of the sensationalistic RKO promo advertisements.

The Calypso music and Haitian drum rythmns in Zombie come from a variety of sources. C. Bakaleinikoff was the musical director, incorporating in particular the talents of singer/actor Sir Lancelot, who performs "British Grenadiers" and "Fort Holland," written in collaboration with Lewton. According to Jacques Tourneur, the director, Lancelot functioned as a "...Greek Chorus, wandering in seven or eight times and explaining the plot." Roy Webb scored the film, which includes three Haitian folk "voodoo" songs, and a unique counterpointing version of Chopin's "E Minor Etude," combined with the pulsating drums which dominate much of the movie soundtrack.

The central recurring image is of the old wooden figurehead Ti Misery, which is Saint Sebastion, the island's Patron Saint, a tragic emblem of the pain and suffering for the descendents of the slaves that live upon the island, a figurehead that came from Africa on a slave ship. As in Lewton's other films, the past intrudes upon the present in baleful reminders of former deeds which mimic present circumstance. (For example, a similar motif of the repentant Conquistidor parade in Lewton's Leopard Man mimics the state of the film's tragic peripheral figure, Dr. Galbraith.) In Zombie, those who came to the island as slaves to European plantation owners are now servants of a different kind of bondage, a bondage that then infiltrates and controls the actions of most of the white masters who control the island. Lewton took pains to bounce these mirror images back and forth, underlining the sense that the modern is built upon the foundations of the old.

The central moment in Zombie is the "night walk" when the nurse, Betsy, takes the "zombie wife," Jessica, thru the fields to the Hum Fort. This "night walk" is a repeated bridge in many of Lewton's films, and characterizes a literary form reminescent of Joseph Conrad:

(Speaking of Conrad's Secret Sharer and Heart of Darkness) "The two novels alike exploit the ancient myth or archetypal experience of the "night journey," of a provisional descent into the primitive and unconscious sources of being." (by Albert Guerard, from the introduction to the Signet Classic edition.)

Betsy, and the audience, are plunged into the escalating conflict between what is real or fancy following this night journey. It should also be noted that while Zombie is a "flashback" narrated by Betsy, her last voice-over of narration comes just before the transition of the story into a heightened dreamlike state with the "night journey."

The French film director of Zombie, Jacques Tourneur, later said: "a horrible title for a very good film - the best film I've ever done in my life."

 

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Filming on I Walked With A Zombie began October 26, 1942, and concluded November 19, 1942.

 

"One day at lunch he [Val Lewton] confided he probably would be leaving the employ of Mr. Selznick before I finished my research job for him. Half in jest, he insinuated he was being kicked upstairs for not having sufficiently appreciated either the novel "Gone With the Wind" or the movie Mr. Selznick made of it. Apparently Val had tried to persuade Mr. Selznick to forget Margaret Mitchell's epic novel of the War between the states and film "War and Peace" or "Vanity Fair," or both, instead. Val delighted in pointing out similarities in the plots of those two classics and of Gone With The Wind."

From DeWitt Bodeen's More from Hollywood, A. S. Barnes and Co., 1977

 

"He was given assignments which most contract producers would have filmed on the back lot and shrugged off as evil necessities, but he approached each assignment as a challenge. Forced to submit to exploitation titles, he was determined that the pictures hiding behind the horror titles should be films of good taste and high production quality."

From DeWitt Bodeen's More from Hollywood, A. S. Barnes and Co., 1977

 

"Given a sensationalistic title leading viewers to expect little more than grotesquery and standard chills, Lewton's unit could justifiably have employed a conventional horror formula, like Universal's, in Zombie. Simply plunging viewers inti a world threatened by monsters and eventually releasing them from that dire grip by vanquishing the threat would have offered audiences a comforting and not yet trite allegory for the world struggle in which they were involved [i.e., WW II]. Zombie's narrative mechanism, however, pointedly works against such a pattern and the dayworld perspective it implies in favor of a more challenging movement into the vesperal regions of the psyche."

From J. P. Telotte's Dreams of Darkness, University of Illinois, 1985

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