I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE
a commentary by Tony McRae
Zombie: "A supernatural power or spell that according to voodoo belief can enter into and reanimate a corpse."
"One who looks or behaves like an automaton."
St. Sebastian is a small sleepy island in the Caribbean, its native inhabitants descendents of Africans brought over in slave ships to work the sugar cane fields. Paul Holland (Tom Conway), a prosperous plantation owner, employs a Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) to care for his wife who appears to be in a catatonic state (1). To the cosmopolitan Paul, Betsy seems rather idealistic: she wants very much to restore Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) to health so that her husband will be happy again.
On the boat trip to the island Betsy remarks on the beauty of the Caribbean. Paul sets her straight: "It's not beautiful. Those flying fish, they are not leaping for joy. They're jumping in terror, bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water...it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. There's no beauty here, only death and decay." She looks up to a shooting star. "Everything dies here," Paul says, "even the stars."
The man is lonely, bitter, and blames himself for his wife's catatonic state. He may be right.
Betsy is let off at the gate of the house. "Fort Holland...from the gate it seemed strangely dreamlike,"(2) she says in a voice-over. And it will remain so until she stirs things up. In its courtyard is Ti-Misery, a figurehead of Saint Sebastian pierced with arrows that adorned the prow of a slave ship that brought the African slaves to the island.
We learn that the Holland family - and the other white folks on St. Sebastian - go about their routines as if time has stood still. They can't imagine, or want, anything different, except perhaps a young nurse to care for Jessica Holland. No one expects the woman to be cured, including Doctor Maxwell, the white doctor who regularly looks in on her. When Betsy suggests that an insulin shot might work, he shrugs. The shot has no effect. But Betsy is not willing to give up. There must be something that can be done.
The Holland plantation is supposedly a haven, a refuge from the chaotic and superstitious natives' world, which is itself surrounded by tall waving reeds that can disorient an outsider. Betsy decides that since white medicine doesn't work, she will take Jessica to the voodoo doctor. In the movie's signature scene, the two women begin a dream-stricken journey, passing dead animals hanging from trees, skulls, totems and the like (3). They meet Carre-Four, a zombie who guards the crossroads that lead to the voodoo doctor (4). When they arrive at the village Betsy is astonished to learn that the voodoo doctor is none other than Mrs. Rand, the mother of Paul and his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison). She tells Betsy she uses voodoo to show the natives that it is mere sorcery so that they will accept western medicine. She, too, says that Jessica will never be cured. Betsy takes Jessica back to Fort Holland.
But the cat is out of the bag: the natives are convinced that Jessica is a zombie. They begin playing their drums louder and louder; they use a voodoo doll dressed like Jessica (5) to draw her back to them. It almost works. As Jessica leaves the compound, Wesley follows her and with an arrow taken from T-Misery kills her in an act of euthanasia.
The film ends with Paul comforting Betsy in his arms. We are left not knowing if Jessica was a zombie, or in fact what her illness was. Could it be that her earlier affair with Wesley enraged Paul to the point of abusing her? Or might it be that she really was possessed by a voodoo god, that she was indeed a zombie?
While this summary - and the film's title, for that matter - may seem corny, the beauty of the movie lies in its somnambulistic atmosphere, effectively rendered by producer Val Lewton, director Jacques Tourneur, and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt. Every frame underlines the island's stasis: the inertness of the whites who make money and live in a comfortable stupor, the natives who cling to their African roots, and weep at a birth and rejoice at a burial. The island's languor is reflected in the film's pace: the scenes segue into each other with fades to black or slow dissolves. (Note the dissolve (6)with Carre-Four being sent to bring Jessica back to the village, and Paul entreating Betsy to return to Canada.)
There's no rush on St. Sebastian since nothing ever changes.
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