I Walked With A Zombie (1943)

Although its title and marketing are sensationalistic, the 1943 film I Walked With A Zombie, produced by Val Newton and directed by Jacques Tournier, is a compelling narrative that offers understated mystery, intriguing characters, and a thoughtful exploration of a tropical setting.

The plot, based on a magazine article by Inez Wallace with dramatic improvements taken from Jane Eyre.Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is assigned to care for the invalid wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway), a wealthy sugar planter on the Caribbean island of St. Sebastian. When ingenue Nurse Betsy comments on the beauty of the islands, Holland has a cheerful response about destruction and decay brought about by the tropics. “Everything good dies here,” he grumbles.

True to the dynamics of Jane Eyre, Holland comes off as a prick, while his half brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), manager of the sugar refinery, seems charming and attractive. On the island, the descendants of slaves are more respectfully depicted here than in other films of the period, with a few black roles developed into actual characters – most notably Alma (Teresa Harris) , a kind servant in the Holland household who looks after Betsy. The patient, Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), isn't exactly the madwoman in the attic, but she has a building to herself, where Betsy, a doctor, and the servants attend to her. Mrs. Holland, the beautiful blond woman in white, suffered a tropical fever that badly damaged her nervous system. As Alma says, “She went mindless,” a sleepwalker who can never be awakened.

Betsy's day off with sweet Wesley complicates matters. After Wes has a few too many rums at the local cafe, he passes out – but not before a local calypso singer (played by the legendary Sir Lancelot) lets drop the truth in the lyrics to one of his songs: Before she became zombified, Jessica was about to leave Paul Holland and run off with Wesley. Betsy sees that Wes is a drunk, and learns that Jessica may have been an unfaithful wife. As the days pass, Betsy, who begins to see her boss Paul Holland as a victim and has had glimpses of his softer side, decides that she will try to help Jessica recover. When a new scientific treatment fails to restore Mrs. Holland, Betsy takes Alma's suggestion and slips away one night to take Jessica to the hounfort – he voodoo temple – to see if the houngan and mambo (priest and priestess) can cure her.

In the most effective sequence in the film, Besty leads Jessica through the cane fields at night, down a complicated network of paths, marked here and there by totems of dead animals and guarded at the crossroads by the towering, zombie sentry Carrefour (Darby Zones). Carrefour is easily the most frightening figure in the film – bony, expressionless, shambling, and dead-eyed in the best zombie tradition. At the hounfort, the houngan determines that Jessica is in fact one of the walking dead, and hence belongs with the those who practice voodoo, and not with the whites. Betsy, with the help of the mysterious Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett) is able to take Jessica back to the Holland compound. But the voodoo-people are going to want that pretty white woman back, it seems.

There's much to enjoy in I Walked With A Zombie. First and foremost, Frances Dee is appealing and engaging as the principled Betsy Connell, and her performance is controlled and pitched perfectly for the screen. Some of the other actors are a bit too polished and stagy, even for the period. As mentioned before, there's also a range of roles for black actors – not all of them stereotyped or patronizing. The film is beautifully lit in the way that only black and white films, and director Tournier makes wonderful use of foregrounding and tracking shots. Made as it was in the heyday of the Motion Picture Code, the filmmakers were limited in what they could show and what events they could relate. All in all, I Walked With a Zombie is more suspenseful than terrifying, more mysterious than shocking, but it's nevertheless engaging as a take on the voodoo-zombie world in the days before eaters of flesh.


The Walking Dead - Issues 79-84

When last we left our survivors, they had settled in -- if that's possible in post-apocalyptic America -- with a group of survivors in a walled compound just outside of Washington DC.  Rick, Andrea, Glenn, Abraham, Michonne and the rest had just found places for themselves in The Community (what else are you going to call it), when a gang of baddies showed up.  Rick Grimes, of course, led the fight against them, there was a lot of gunfire, and, in the end, the baddies left, and The Community's leader, recognizing the better man, turned over management of the place to Rick.  The problem is, all that noise from the shootout attracted every walker from miles around.  Good luck in the new job, Rick! (SPOILERS AHEAD!)

Issue 79 has the feel of a breather in the narrative, although some attention is paid to the problem not so much of the walking dead but to people.  When a Community member is stabbed by a loner on the outside -- even when an offer of help was no doubt in the making -- the question of the value of even sticking together in a community is raised. Eight-year-old Carl Grimes, clear-eyed and cynical, responds to the news of the the stabbing in his typically blunt manner: "Now maybe everyone will stop pretending we're safe."  Andrea, too, for all she's been through, is distrustful of the possibility of a normal life, and prefers the edgy solitude of her sniper tower and the company of her rifle, keeping the Community safe from on high.  It's clear that the roamer who's been attracted by all the noise are becoming a herd of thousands of zombies outside the walls, and that, in the end, no wall will likely keep the survivors safe for long.

The "No Way Out" storyline begins in Issue 80, with a bit of a misdirection -- first in a reminder of the stark zombie-killing force of Abraham, and second in the reasonable and comforting leadership of old One Hand, Rick Grimes.  "Keep as quiet as possible," Rick advises.  But the Community walls are quickly surrounded several zombies deep on all sides.  It's winter, so there's no easy way to grow food and no chance to to forage.  Rick admits that it's not ideal, and further suggests that, to conserve heating energy, people should start sharing living space.  All of this unfolds amid pages that are surprisingly white, made so by the effect of snow created solely by irregular white blobs that spatter each panel.  By nightfall, Michonne and Morgan are in bed together, and -- surprise -- Rick is hosting Jesse, the wife of the man he just killed.  Andrea, having taken her post in the sniper tower at the start of the day, looks to be there overnight and through the foreseeable future.

Before you know it, there's a breach in the wall -- small at first, but the weight of a thousand undead can move things, you know.  At the same time, Glenn decides to lead a mission to help out Andrea, stranded in her tower, by climbing across a rope suspended over a sea of walkers -- see the image at right. Issue 81 offers some more familiar zombie-killing fare and narrow escapes (or not), but it's clear that the herd outside must be dealt with directly in issues to come.  As a side note, WD 81 was one of the first comics I read in digital form, and the application for doing so requires you read panel-to-panel, not page-to-page; it seemed to me that the dramatic impact of certain moments was enhanced by the digital format, while the visual sweep was lessened --despite the ability to zoom in or pan any of the images.  At any rate, by the final panel, members of the Community are being eaten.  There maybe no way out, after all.

Much of Issue 82 takes place inside Rick's house as the Community is overrun.  "There's too many of them" is a line repeated by several characters as they battle the walkers.  Michonne is in fine form here, unleashing her samurai sword on the herd in defense of Morgan, who gets himself bitten.  (No worries, Morgan: your lady-friend Michonne will lop that arm off with your hardly having to ask.)  One particularly effective image is that of Abraham, looking out from his house while, reflected in the glass, we see the very procession of zombies he's observing.  Young Carl has got his hat on and his gun loaded, and is watching Morgan, now bandaged up and (possibly) heading for zombiedom.  Carl will shoot him if necessary.  With the Community now overrun, there is the question of what to do next, as cooperation will likely go out the window and survival takes precedence.  Take care of yourself and your own.  When asked about what is to be done about the children, Rick puts it unsentimentally: "The thing to keep in mind about other's people's children -- they're not our children."

In the annals of "making a break for it," Issue 83 offers a clear instance of failure, giving full meaning to the title of the story line "No Way Out."  Rick and Carl and their latest charges grab a zombie and pull the old guts-on-a-poncho trick.  But, once outside, people are too freaked out to keep quiet and keep moving, and several folks are eaten before Abraham comes outside and starts shooting.  Many zombies are killed, and other survivors join the carnage, and it appears that, if the gang just keeps blasting and chopping and bashing away, they might just put down the couple thousand zombies in the herd after all.  Sadly, Carl is shot -- not fatally, it appears -- but badly enough.  One of the most gruesome panels in the entire run of The Walking Dead is that of Carl, wounded, turning to his father.

In a moving sequence, the epic battle of the survivors against the herd really comes down to a simple narrative imperative.  If Rick can get Carl to the doctor and he and the others can destroy the herd, Carl might live. Michonne joins the fight, as do Glenn and Andrea (having gotten themselves back into the compound), and the dead pile up.  As they fight continues, they come to realize that they can win.  By the end, in one remarkable panel, we see the core group amid a pile of hundreds of downed walkers.  As "No Way Out" concludes, in a very touching epilogue of sorts, Rick comes to realize that "people are the problem," and that the walkers can be dealt with if the proper steps are taken.  And Carl is hanging on, hope against hope. People are the problem.  Again and again, in the world of The Walking Dead, the problems of the zombie apocalypse have more to do with human nature than the narrow imperatives of the undead.  


White Zombie (1932)

My survey of the zombie in popular culture begins with the 1932 film, White Zombie, directed by Victor Helperin and starring Bela Lugosi. Making full use of re-dressed sets from the 1931 hits Dracula and Frankenstein, as well as the cinematography skills of Arthur Martinelli, White Zombie introduces viewers to a concept of the zombie that is different from what we know these days, but in a visually interesting and consistently creepy film.

The plot is a stretcher from the beginning. Convinced by the wealthy white Haitian Beaumont to come to Haiti and be married on his plantation, the dashing young Neil and beautiful Madeline are drawn into Beaumont's trap. His plan? Enlist the services of the sorcerer LeGendreKarloff) to fake Madeline's death and bring her back as Beaumont's sonambulistic mistress. But Beaumont underestimates the deviousness of LeGrand, and before you know it, practically everyone has been turned into zombies. It's up to the pure-hearted Neil, working with the scientist Dr. Bruner, to save the day.

Now, these zombies aren't your modern-day walking dead. The flesh-eating, shuffle-footed rotters we know today are the evolution of monsters imagined by Richard Matheson (in the 1954 novel I Am Legend), adapted into the film The Last Man on Earth (1964), and given their real nasty edge by George Romero in 1968's Night of the Living Dead. More on those narratives later. In truth, the zombies of White Zombie are mindless automatons, but operate fully in the service of the magician LeGrand. Think of these old school zombies as a victim of mind-control brought about by a pop culture version of voodoo.

The carriage driver (always a useful chap in a horror film) explains the basics of these Haitian zombies to Madeline and Neil in the opening minutes of the film. Who are those fellows up there on that hillside digging around in the dark? “They are not men. They are dead bodies. Zombies – the living dead. Corpses taken from their graves who are made to work in the sugar mills and the fields at night.”

The concept of slavery is clearly impressed upon the film. Set in Haiti, the only modern nation to have had a slave uprising in which the oppressed prevailed, White Zombie depicts blacks often in the same state of servitude – this time as animated corpses, and a disposable work force at that. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is a tour of the sugar mill, where we see black workers lurching through the machinery of the industry. One black zombie falls directly into the gears of a giant machine. Only the audience cares.

All the more disturbing is the implied horror – perhaps lost on contemporary audiences – of white people becoming zombies (that is, being enslaved) in similar ways. When LeGendre turns the tables on the selfish Beaumont and takes control of a white man, this seems to be depth of the horror the film takes us to, but not before a white woman (Madeline) has met a similar fate. The complications that the plot moves toward – the enslavement of white men and women – is a telling glimpse into the racial psychology of the first half of the 20th century. White slavery, anyone?

The pacing of and performances in the film will feel awkward at times, as both the actors and the filmmakers are clearly coming out of the age of stage and silent film. It seems that few people understood that the power of film requires that many aspects of the presentation be understated. Bela Lugosi as the mastermind and sorcerer LeGendre gives the most distinctive performance, but many viewers will feel as though they are watching camp and not a legitimate horror film. Nevertheless, White Zombie has many interesting moments – mostly of a visual and atmospheric nature – and, with the film clocking at just under 70 minutes, it's worth your time.

For those of you who are wondering about the heavy metal band White Zombie, yes, they did take their name from which took the movie, and it's been a primary source of inspiration for former art school student Robert Cumming, AKA Rob Zombie, who has been nominated three times for a Grammy, as well as becoming a noted director of House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil's Rejects (2005), Halloween (2007), Werewolf Women of the SS (2007), and Halloween II (2009).

Up next: I Walked With A Zombie (1943)