Mad Scenes: I Walked With a Zombie

The one with the sugarcane fields.

Universal Studios’ reign of terror in the 1930s was such that, during wartime, they continued to make an easy living by extending the shelf-lives of their Depression-era hits. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr. starred in endless movies featuring the Invisible Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man, with these streams of monster-driven narratives eventually becoming combined and cross-pollinated, enmeshing into a rat king of sequelmania. It was the same story at the B studios and on poverty row, which were counter-programming westerns and films noir with their own horror outings, trying to survive beneath the heft of, say, the Warner Bros gangster movies, the seemingly endless bookings of Gone With the Wind (1939), and the musicals from RKO Pictures.

That is, until RKO almost went bankrupt after some moron decided to make a controversial, lawsuit-ridden flop named Citizen Kane (1941). Seeking recovery, the studio hired Val Lewton to produce their own horror movies, starting with Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People in 1942. Although it involves a non-American woman turning into a panther, the film signalled a marked departure from what audiences had come to expect from the horror genre, in that very little of the actual horror was engendered by what was presented onscreen. Indeed, Cat People‘s scariest moment comes from a fake-out, setting the scene with extremely moody lighting and excellent sound design, before jolting the viewers from their seats with canny misdirection. It was a marked success, garnering $4m at the box-office during its initial run (nearly $60m in today’s money), and setting the stage for a string of horror successes for Lewton at RKO that would end all too soon with a series of personal disasters in 1946.

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But while the finest moment of Lewton’s hot streak in horror would arrive with the Karloff vehicle The Body Snatcher (1945), it was Tourneur’s follow-up to Cat People – the Carribean-set I Walked With a Zombie (1943) – that would inspire the strongest and most unshakable sense of genuine fear. More precisely, it all happens in the scene where the protagonists wander into a sugarcane field guarded by the nightmarish Carre-four (Darby Jones). Without the bone-chilling reveal of that unpleasant bastard’s face, the film is barely even classifiable as a horror, as its battle between rational thought and superstition is predominantly overshadowed by a centralised, melodramatic narrative concerning nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), the overbearing plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway), and Holland’s half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison). They squabble over each other, and over Holland’s wife Jessica (Christine Gordon), whose catatonia may have been caused by emotional abuse, or by the voodoo of the native slaves of Holland’s plantation.

(It’s worth mentioning here that, during the production of I Walked With a Zombie, Lewton researched Haitian tribes and rituals heavily so as not to exoticise the black characters; as such, there’s much to be said with regards to its musings on colonialism, but that’s a story for another time. Maybe.)

Convinced magic is the cure, Betsy takes Jessica to the Houmfort where the slaves reside. Before they depart, they receive whispered directions from the housemaid, Alma (Theresa Harris), in a quiet moment with little diegetic noise. The scene then dissolves into a low-angled shot of a towering, backlit figure stood motionlessly in a field, with a ghostly wind howling through the walls of sugarcane on either side of him. The shot is arresting because it’s almost pure expressionism, with unnatural lighting and the jagged, enlivened plants swaying restlessly around an evidently dead character; it comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t resemble anything that came before it. So far, there has only been one understated reference to Carre-four, but we immediately know him from first sight, poised all deathlike as the guardian of the crossroads.

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The action suddenly leaps elsewhere to track Betsy and Jessica as they navigate the cane fields, the camera stalking from behind the rows of plants until the characters emerge into an opening. There, they begin to encounter hanging animal carcasses and hear faint echoes on the wind, with their differing expressions further enhancing the sense of discord: Betsy looks as though she’s constantly suppressing a shriek of terror, while Jessica, dead to the world, follows placidly as though nothing was wrong. It’s entirely probable that Betsy would have felt safer in such an environment had she come alone, as opposed to bringing the living dead; her company only gazes aimlessly, standing defenseless and silent. It’s almost as if, leaving their bastion of purportedly rational civilisation, the characters have slipped into a distorted alternate universe.

Gradually, the camera begins to capture Betsy and Jessica from the front, logging their reactions while concealing where they’re going, or what’s in front of them. A musical score begins to play ever so subtly, and then fades out almost immediately, as though it were never there; it’s soon replaced by the looming sounds of tribal drums, signalling that the characters are nearing the Houmfort. By now, the dread is unbearable, and Betsy’s eyes are darting spasmodically, occasionally resuming focus upon the spotlight from her torch. The camera, too, begins to track the light just in time for it to illuminate an almost skeletal foot; then, both torchlight and camera zip upwards to reveal a face, the mere sight inspiring the sensation of being smothered in ants.

This moment is a triumph of make-up, pacing, and theme. The scene, and its climax, wouldn’t be so terrifying were it not for the prior uncertainty as to the cause of Jessica’s condition: we’re pretty sure it wasn’t voodoo, but when we see Carre-four’s lifeless, bulging eyes, it casts everything under doubt. He’s zombified, not zombie-like, meaning that he looks nothing like the type of creatures directly popularised by the later films of George A. Romero, but more like a body without consciousness (and that’s even creepier). To make matters worse, all qualms are later quelled regarding the impact of voodoo upon Jessica’s condition, but Carre-four’s backstory is, disturbingly, never revealed. Each individual viewer will bring their own reading to the film, but even if only for a brief while, Tourneur has us cast under his own spell of cinematic voodoo; traversing the cane fields along with Betsy and Jessica leads us to our own experience with the sublime, a moment of hysterical potency that haunts the film until it’s over, and resonates with the viewer even longer than that.

  • L. G. Ball

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