Clive Dawson, I Walked with a Zombie. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2023. 120 pages. Available in hardback and e-book.
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At a time when education and culture are increasingly under attack, and even simple facts are regarded as contestable, it’s reassuring to note a counter-trend of fearlessly exploring some of the less popular byways of popular culture. There’s been an explosion of short monographs on individual films over the past years, among them BFI’s Film Classics series that has yielded such idiosyncratic works as Camille Paglia on The Birds and Salman Rushdie on The Wizard of Oz. Another addition to the trend is Liverpool University Press’s Devils Advocate series, focusing, unlike the BFI series, on a single genre: horror. Numbering 62 titles to date, the series is a welcome addition to the scholarship on the subject. Among the most recent releases is Clive Dawson’s excellent history and analysis of the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur masterpiece I Walked with a Zombie (1943).
Author Dawson1 offers a solid, thorough reading of this film that covers virtually every aspect of the film: pre-production, shooting, post-production, marketing/publicity, as well as popular and critical reception. Dawson includes biographies of Lewton and his collaborators, as well as thematic analysis. The book can be considered definitive as the most detailed discussion of the film to date.
I Walked with a Zombie is considered a kind of “subtle and ambiguous visual poem,” as the author says, and certainly that’s a major part of its appeal and the aspect most frequently analyzed in critiques of the film. But another important consideration, less commonly covered, is a subtle but pervasive political/racial element. Lewton, Dawson argues, “was determined to confront the history of slavery inherent to the region.” This determination was limited by the times, the studio’s fear of making a blatant critique of racism that could trigger censorship by the industry censorship body (the Production Code Administration, or PCA) and the Office of War Information (OWI). Too, featuring black characters in a Hollywood film challenging a white power structure, even a B-film like this, was unprecedented. In order to pursue his vision, Lewton and screenwriter Ardel Wray did a major overhaul on the script, radically changing it from the sensationalized newspaper story by Inez Wallace and then Curt Siodmak’s original script. Even something as simple as the film’s setting – Haiti – became problematic, eventually going unnamed in order to avoid offending Haiti and its people and to satisfy the censors who preferred to keep it vague. Lewton’s art was always nuanced and subtle – Dawson describes how the producer cut a melodramatic “fiery climax” that appeared in Siodmak’s original script – and being confronted with possible censorship may have actually helped the film by forcing it to push some of its ideas into subtexts that enhance Lewton’s preferred dreamlike atmosphere that made it such a popular and critical success, and so widely influential.
A case in point is the author’s analysis of the fascinating character of Sir Lancelot, the singer who acts as a kind of Greek chorus in commenting on – and humiliating, the author argues – the colonialist Holland family. Viewers may have puzzled over the menacing reappearance of this character continuing to subtly attack the Hollands through song after he’s been scolded and, seemingly, chastened. Why didn’t he simply apologize and disappear as he somewhat sinisterly said he would (“I’ll creep in just like a little fox and warm myself in his heart”). Dawson persuasively characterizes Sir Lancelot as the voice of blacks’ “simmering resentment” against the Holland family and its colonialist history, a history that, like Sir Lancelot, is persistent and can’t be silenced. “This time there’s no mistaking the intentions of the singer,” the author writes. “It’s a deliberate act of defiance, finishing the song he’d been forced to abandon earlier, whilst demonstrating that his apology had been entirely insincere.” This complex treatment of a black character, and the incorporation of other black characters’ seeming self-awareness of being slaves and their ongoing anger at that status, in early 1940s Hollywood was unusual and extends to both imagery (the unforgettable St. Sebastian-like black martyred figurehead from a slave ship) and other characters like Theresa Harris’s wise Alma, who openly scoffs at Western medicine in favor of the native voodoo religion.
The author’s readings enrich the viewer’s experience. For example, in analyzing the figurehead, he connects it to the zombies: “Prominently, we’re shown the statue of Saint Sebastian for the first time, the Christian martyr who, according to legend, had been shot full of arrows yet had miraculously survived – ‘killed’ yet resurrected, a state of being subtly echoing that of the zombie.”
Lewton’s controlling nature and obsession with detail were legendary, but he balanced those qualities with a surprising generosity. For example, he let director Jacques Tourneur improvise, something I, as a longtime fan of the Lewton unit, hadn’t imagined. Says the author: “Betsy finishes her preparations in front of the mirror, wondering about the ‘stillness of Fort Holland,’ then Webb’s music turns subtly ominous as the shadow of a figure crosses the bars of light. Betsy pauses, uneasy, but the figure is merely the butler, Clement (Richard Abrams), announcing dinner. This fleeting moment is not in the script and was evidently conceived on the floor by Tourneur, then later punctuated by Webb’s score.” Tourneur’s own “quiet” approach to filmmaking would have dovetailed with Lewton’s, and apparently did so in this case.
At the center of the film is the virtuoso passage of Betsy the nurse and her charge, the possible-zombie Jessica, through a sugar-cane forest at night, headed toward the Houmfort, where voodoo ceremonies are practiced. Dawson gives a strong analysis and production history of this sequence and how it came about that a Hollywood B-film could feature an authentic, respectful voodoo dance undergirded by the powerful practitioners’ desire, and attempts, to reclaim a white woman back into their world as a zombie.
There’s much more to this book than I’ve discussed here, just as there is in the movie; the level of detail in each of the areas it explores, based on deep research, is granular. But the narrative is always engaging, uncovering fresh insights throughout. And while I Walked with a Zombie has been written about extensively as a canonical work of the genre, this reading is a model of in-depth criticism and history and will add considerably to viewers’ experience of the film.
- Full disclosure: Clive published a detailed profile of Zombie screenwriter Ardel Wray in Bright Lights. [↩]