Everything good dies here. Even the stars.– Paul Holland
Val Lewton’s horror films have a strange rhythm to them. Where the Universal horror films of that era have a sort of fairy tale quality to them, Lewton’s are more grounded, and the horrors more nebulous. Are they devils of the mind, or the flesh, or both?
Lewton’s 1943 effort, I Walked with a Zombie, exemplifies this approach. His second horror film for RKO, after Cat People, it was directed by Jacques Tourneur, the film blends creative lightning, music and staging to foment a disturbing atmosphere – but rather than one of fear, it is one of misery. The island of Saint Sebastian is a place of beauty that brings only sadness to its inhabitants.
This atmosphere is embodied by the insensate Jessica Holland (played by Christine Gordon), and her family. Holland, the titular zombie – one of only two in the film – is at the heart of a mystery never fully explained.
Is she merely a sufferer of some awful disease, or the victim of a vindictive god? The film provides no answer. Or, rather the answer is tailored to the audience. If you believe in zombies, Jessica can be nothing else. She does not bleed or speak. Like the eerie Carre-Four, who guards the island’s crossroads (pictured above, in one of the film’s seminal shots), Jessica is at once dead and alive. A symbol of the power of the loa, and the punishment which awaits those who transgress against their laws.
But she is also a symbol of stifled hopes and dreams. More than a supernatural horror, she represents the crushing weight of regret. She is the living – or unliving – symbol of the shared culpability of her husband, her lover and her step-mother. A crime that can never be redressed.
She is enslaved to the Holland clan, as the ancestors of the island’s population were. Brought to the island by a neglectful husband, she falls for the charms of his louche half-brother, and suffers for it. Demeaned and abused by both brothers, she makes clear her intentions to leave, when their desperate mother curses her in an attempt to prevent her from doing so. A sad story, made worse by her transitory state.
If Jessica were alive, or dead, life could continue. But like her, the other characters are trapped, unable to move either forwards or backwards. They cannot undo the past, and they cannot move on while Jessica sits, blind and mute, in her darkened room. She is their guilt manifested, and while she persists, they are caught fast in chains of their own making. And so the characters bend beneath the weight of guilt, both personal and shared.
And finally, in the end, they break.
I’ve told you Miss Connell: this is a sad place.– Paul Holland