Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bloodless (I Walked With a Zombie)

Before I proceed with the actual talk-about-the-film-in-some-vaguely-analytical-way for this week’s installment of the 1001 Movies Blog Club, I wanted to talk a little bit about how I’m managing the overall endeavor from a personal perspective. 1103 movies total (and counting, more no doubt to come in October or so) and 210 (as of right now) seen by me. I have a spreadsheet of the entire list of enshrined movies, which for sanity’s sake I have extensively color-coded. Green means I have in fact seen it. Blue means I haven’t seen it, but it has already been an assigned movie for Blog Club members, either from a week I bailed on or some time before I joined up. Yellow means neither I nor the Club have seen it, but I very much want to, so whenever the next time I’m tapped to pick a feature film rolls around, I can zero in on the yellow highlighted movies in my list to make a selection from the designated time period.

And then there’s the orange movies, which are the ones I haven’t seen and am kind of in disbelief at myself over, because they are minor or major classics in the geek canon. This includes such 1950’s sci-fi gems as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Forbidden Planet (a doubly improbable gap in my knowledge since I love Shakespeare as much as I love tales of alien worlds), plus latter-day mandatory movies like Planet of the Apes, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Mad Max and Videodrome. I also feel a certain amount of obligation (which I almost certainly will fulfill sooner than later) to finally sit down and watch The Maltese Falcon and Shaft one of these days, given the thematic resonance between the respective archetypes of private eyes and vigilante superheroes.

But the craziest gaps are in the horror genre, considering how I’m always going on and on about what an aficionado I am. In my defense I can only point out that horror is an inherently overcrowded field, and although I’ve seen a ton of horror flicks, from classics to crapfests, there remains an order of magnitude more that I have not yet tackled. And as far as where the genre intersects with the 1001 Must-Sees, and gets color-coded orange in my personal tracking system, the list includes Universal Monster movies The Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolfman, Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, and both zombie masterpieces Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead …

… not to mention I Walked With a Zombie, which I was pleasantly surprised to see pop up in the Blog Club queue a few weeks ago. I didn’t request that the Club cover it, but I had duly oranged it on my own spreadsheet because it is the granddaddy of all zombie movies, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

Here’s the problem with granddaddies, though: sometimes they are really racist, and sometimes they tell boring, pointless stories, and sometimes you really struggle to find a way to relate to them. I Walked With a Zombie is more like a short story on film, barely clocking in at 68 minutes, and I broke it up into three viewing chunks of twenty-some minutes (because I am of course oh so busy) and yet I still found my attention wandering. The acting is fairly stilted, in the way that I tend to associate with most older Hollywood productions. There are a few nice pieces of camerawork here and there, and the shadowy black and white turns a Caribbean plantation house into a Gothic haunted manse, although the unquiet spirit in question is not a free-floating ghost but a mindless yet ambulatory woman somewhere in between life and death. Her family and her doctor believe she is suffering the aftereffects of a tropical fever, while the local slave-descended population believe she is a true zombie. The soundwork is good also, particularly the effective use of the constant, unsettling sound of houmfort drums in the background.

There are many black performers in the cast but they all fall into one of two categories, either the obsequious and servile types or the superstitious primitives. I understand the deeply embedded and unthinking institutional racism of the 1940’s and I know that nobody responsible for making I Walked With a Zombie was trying to make a provocative statement about race, but it’s still extremely hard to get around it. The African culture transplanted to the islands is depicted as both fascinatingly, frighteningly exotic and inherently inferior.

The main problem with I Walked With a Zombie is that, as a horror movie, it’s incredibly tame. It incorporates ambiguously supernatural material, in the question of whether or not Jessica is in fact a zombie, but it relies heavily on voodoo being an intrinsically terrifying alien concept, which doesn’t really hold up today. With the horror element thus not terribly horrifying, what remains is a fairly limp melodrama about a young nurse working for two quarreling brothers to take care of the woman who married one, but whom both brothers loved. And the movie begins more or less at the end of the story, with the romantic rivalry already a moot point given Jessica’s zombification. The movie concerns itself mainly with payoffs and consequences, without giving much of a reason to care.

Yeah, basically how I felt during my viewing

I wanted to like the movie, I did! But whatever power it once held to introduce viewers to an eerie world hidden in the shadows of our own has long since been demystified; the veil it means to pull back has been subsequently well-shredded. I can feel some gratitude for the trails that it blazed at the time, especially when considered as part of the entire body of work produced by Val Lewton, who could very well be enshrined as a horror geek patron saint. It’s good to live in the pop culture world that came to be in the wake of films like I Walked With a Zombie, but it’s also good to be living at a substantial remove from them as well. Sometimes old things improve with age, but sometimes newer things improve upon the older.


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    I do not understand why, right this second, you are not watching Forbidden Planet.

    It is one of the Best. Things. Ever. Endless giggles and fun times.

    I can understand your issues with IWWAZ, especially it being tame. I've learned not to expect "scary" from anything earlier than the sixties. If an early film DOES wind up being scary, then so much the better. If you had been expecting something fantastic from this film, then naturally, your disappointment makes sense. But I wasn't expecting anything, and was rather delightfully surprised.

    1. One year for my birthday, I think when I turned 11 or 12, I told my parents I wanted to rent some monster movies and have a sleepover with some friends. The monster movies in question ended up being Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein and the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi. I still have pretty fond memories of that party (and it goes to show how even as a pre-adolescent I had this vague sense that there were some movies from before my time that I *needed* to seek out and sit through). I think Dracula holds up as a horror movie which is genuinely frightening on some level, even though it predates the make-you-jump-out-of-your-seat kind of movies from the 60's and later. But Dracula is probably a stand-out exception, so I think your rule of thumb is pretty apt!

  2. I was really looking forward to IWWAZ after seeing 1942's Cat People from the same outfit, which I loved. I was disappointed too. Don't let this put you off Cat People. I thought it had some chills if not any horror exactly.

    1. Thanks for the reassurance/recommendation - Cat People is definitely on my list (not just the 1001 list, but my selective subset thereof). Movies don't have to be full-throated HORROR for me to enjoy them, they just have to have something going for them. IWWAZ was neither horror nor much of anything else that was my cup of tea. But I'm optimistic about finding Cat People more in line with its quality reputation!