It is difficult to fully express my love for I Walked With A Zombie. I was first introduced to the film by Adam Roche, of the brilliant The Secret History of Hollywood and Attaboy Clarence podcasts. Adam is currently producing a season on the work of Val Lewton, and his episode of the Shadows series that details I Walked With A Zombie, entitled Song of the Dead, begins with a story, narrated by the mellifluous voiced Mark Gatiss, entitled Godfather Death. I will not tell you any more about Adam’s masterstroke in podcast narratives, because I urge you most ardently to seek out the series and bless your eardrums with it.
But it was Adam’s beautiful narrative, which allows you to see the labour of love that I Walked With A Zombie was for Val Lewton, and Ardel Wray, Jacques Tourneur and Mark Robson that I came to understand how special its creators felt it was, and saw the brilliance of this film.
Nicknamed Jane Eyre in Jamaica by cast and crew, the film, despite its hammy title, has all the poignance, darkness and mystery of a great gothic novel. It does not explore zombieism as a plague of reanimated, flesh eating corpses, but as something that is both dream and reality. It is a story that makes the viewer grapple with whether or not we can ever truly reconcile science and superstition, and if we do not need both the logical precepts of science and the fantastic faith of superstition to exist, sane and balanced, as human beings. It also delves into ideas of betrayal, loneliness, grief, fear and jealousy, as well as how innocence is lost in the face of all of these experiences.
A Nurse Has Come To Make Her Walk
The opening scene of the film looks very much like a romance film, with a couple walking along a beach while the titles appear upon the screen. There is a first person narration by the main character, Betsy (played by Frances Dee), a young Canadian nurse, who briefly mentions how the title of the film connects to her experiences in the story that is about to unfold on screen. Betsy’s almost self deprecating tone introduces the difficulty of reconciling her fact driven profession of medicine and science, and the largely unexplainable events that she witnesses whilst on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. Betsy’s first person narration is also reminiscent of a gothic novel, such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca, as these novels are written from the first person point of view of a young, inexperienced woman, who has journeyed to a place unknown to her, where events beyond her previous existence will transpire.
She is interviewed for the position of full time nurse and caretaker to the wife of a sugar plantation owner on the island of Saint Sebastian in the West Indies. The interviewer’s assurances of the delights of such a position in the tropics is juxtaposed with the image of snow falling heavily at the window behind Betsy, who dreamily repeats the word “palm tree”.
Whilst on the boat to her new home, Betsy internally marvels at the beauty of her surroundings, but her new employer, Paul Holland (played by one of my favourite actors, Tom Conway), tries to disillusion her by explaining that everything she sees is an illusion, this is really a place of fear, predation and cruelty. His harsh affirmations result in Betsy recognising that he has suffered a serious trauma, and make her empathise with him despite his brusque treatment of her.
During Betsy’s journey to Fort Holland by trap, the driver relates the painful and dark history of the island caused by the slave trade, which is still extremely present as represented by Ti-Misery, the figurehead of a slave ship, which is pierced by arrows and resides in Fort Holland’s garden. Betsy naïvely replies that the drivers’ ancestors were taken to a beautiful place. Through Betsy’s narration about the events to come at Fort Holland, the house becomes a central character in her story, like Thornfield Hall or Manderley.
She is introduced to Paul’s half-brother, Wesley (played by James Ellison), who immediately expresses his attraction to Betsy by calling her “beautiful”. Betsy’s reaction to his advances are friendly, but cool. After dinner, Wesley’s comments about the absent Paul make it clear that he feels deep seated resentment and jealousy towards his brother, although the cause of these feelings is not yet clear.
Later in the evening, Betsy is awoken by the sound of a woman sobbing, which is emanating from the tower. She thinks that Jessica Holland is the source of the crying, and follows her into the thickly shadowed, spiralling tower. Despite repeated attempts to communicate with her, Mrs Holland is unresponsive to Betsy, and seemingly glides towards her, causing the nurse to scream in terror. Her scream draws Paul to the tower, where he instructs his manservant to take his wife back to bed. The manservant explains that it was in fact Alma (played by the wonderful Theresa Harris), the housekeeper, who was crying over the birth of her nephew. Paul explains that this is a local custom due to the legacy of slavery, which has caused the islanders to be mournful at births and merry at funerals.
The following day, Betsy learns from Alma that Jessica has become “mindless” from an extremely debilitating and sudden illness that she does not know the cause of. Later on, Paul reprimands Betsy for what he sees as her silly behaviour the night before, and assures her that Betsy is correct in her belief that Jessica is mentally disabled, and not afflicted by unseen, supernatural forces as believed by some on the island. The island physician, Dr Maxwell (played by James Bell), explains that Jessica is a “zombie” due to neurological damage caused by a severe tropical fever, and that there is very little likelihood of either possible treatment or a cure. After her discussion with Dr Maxwell, Paul makes oblique remarks about the dangers of vanity, which leave Betsy confused.
On her day off, Betsy agrees to go to a café with Wesley, where she hears, despite Wesley trying to distract her, a local calypso singer (played by the extraordinarily talented Sir Lancelot) singing The Fort Holland song, which details the love triangle between Jessica, Paul and Wesley, and its tragic consequences. Wesley angrily dismisses the calypso singer’s attempts to apologise for singing the song, and then expresses further bitterness and anger towards his brother, telling Betsy that Paul was supposedly verbally abusive towards Jessica. Night falls, and Wesley is passed out drunk at the table. While Betsy attempts to rouse him, the calypso singer appears once again, becoming increasingly sinister as he approaches Betsy from the shadows. She has become part of the song, which disturbs her greatly.
De wife fall down and de evil came and it burned her mind in de fever flame Ah, woe! Ah, me! Shame and sorrow for de family Her eyes are empty and she cannot talk and a nurse has come to make her walk De brothers are lonely and de nurse is young and now you must see dat my song is sung Ah, woe! Ah, me! Shame and sorrow for de family
The calypso singer disappears when Paul and Wesley’s mother, Mrs Rand (played by Edith Barrett), appears and manages to rouse her drunken son from his stupor enough for him to go home. She asks Betsy to assist in reducing Wesley’s alcoholism by persuading Paul to remove the whiskey decanter from the table.
At dinner the next night, the “jungle drums” can be heard, and Paul explains that the islanders practice voodoo, which he is highly dismissive of. Despite rebuking Betsy for supposedly interfering in family matters by suggesting the removal of the decanter from the table, Paul has it removed from the table at dinner time. This causes an argument between the brothers, with Wesley accusing Paul of trying to curry favour with Betsy and hurling accusations at him regarding Jessica once more. Later in the evening, Betsy seeks Paul out, and they share their first tender exchange. Paul admits his shortcomings regarding his marriage, but does an about face when he hears the sound of the drums once more, and asks Betsy never to mention Jessica and his brother’s relationship, or his troubled marriage, again.
I don’t know how their own love is revealed to other women. Maybe in their sweetheart’s arms. I don’t know. To me it came that night after Paul Holland had almost thrust me from the room…And then because I loved him, I felt I had to restore her to him.
Betsy, due to her love for Paul, resolves to restore Jessica to him once more, with insulin shock treatment. The treatment is potentially fatal, but Betsy and Dr Maxwell persuade a reluctant Paul to allow them to administer the treatment due to Jessica’s inability to lead a normal life because of her catatonic state. The treatment is unsuccessful, and Paul comforts Betsy who is very disappointed. Wesley, once again bitter and angry, observes Paul’s love for Betsy.
After Betsy meets Alma’s sister and baby nephew, Alma tells Betsy about the miracles performed at Home Fort by the high priest who channels the power of the voodoo gods. Mrs Rand, however, dispels Betsy’s curiosity about the potential for a cure for Jessica through voodoo practices. Despite this, Betsy resolves to take Jessica to the Home Fort. Alma gives them directions as well as protective voodoo patches which will ensure that they are not halted at the crossroads.
Betsy guides Jessica through the swaying sugar cane fields to the crossroads. The way is marked with voodoo sign posts, such as goat’s and a human’s skull, as well as a dead animal suspended from a tree branch. Betsy loses her patch amongst the sugar cane, but Carrefour (played by Darby Jones), the crossroads guard, allows them to pass because Jessica still has her patch pinned to her dress.
Once they reach the Home Fort, Betsy witnesses a voodoo ritual where a young woman is hypnotised by a voodoo priest, who wields a sword during the proceedings. Once the ritual is over, the devotees approach a hole in a wooden door, where they tell the hidden high priest their concerns.
When Betsy reaches the head of the line, she is pulled into the hut, and Mrs Rand is revealed to be the high priest. Mrs Rand explains that she was forced to become high priest at Home Fort due to the islanders’ resistance to modern medicine. Whilst Betsy and Mrs Rand are speaking inside the hut, Jessica is stabbed in the arm with a sword by the voodoo practitioners. When she does not react to the wound they inflict and does not bleed, they are convinced she is a zombie.
Betsy returns Jessica to Fort Holland, and admits her actions and motives to Paul, as well as her love for him. He is not entirely sure how to respond, although it seems clear that he reciprocates Betsy’s feelings. It is in this scene that Betsy and Paul most mirror Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, with Paul’s description of Betsy’s mind as clean and good, and his intimation that he wants to be loved by, and love, someone who is good.
The island Commissioner visits Paul. Alma seems to be having difficulty with the “police” horse, and so Betsy explains that you can only lead a horse without facing them. Alma amusedly observes that a horse is “kind of manlike” in that way. Alma has been purposely “struggling” with the horse in order to try and eavesdrop on the intense conversation between the Commissioner, Paul and Wesley, but has been unable to hear anything. She does, however, inform Betsy that there is unrest on the island. That night the voodoo priest prepares to send Carrefour to retrieve Jessica using an effigy of her.
Paul admits his love for Betsy and his troubled relationship with Jessica, once again acknowledging his own part in their unhappy marriage. He tells Betsy that she must go back to Canada as he could not bear to lose her because he has never loved anyone the way he loves her. Betsy protests, and tearfully tells Paul that she loves Fort Holland and him.
That night Carrefour tries to retrieve Jessica, but Mrs Rand sends him away. The following day Dr Maxwell informs them that the Commissioner is investigating the circumstances of Jessica’s illness due to growing unrest on the island, and the desire of those at Home Fort to preform voodoo tests on Jessica. Wesley delights in the thought of Paul being punished for his supposed sins against Jessica. But Mrs Rand admits that she hated Jessica because of her daughter in law’s vanity and destructive powers over her two sons. She confesses that she took part in voodoo rituals, during which she fully gave herself over to voodoo practices, and wished Jessica to be rendered a zombie. Dr Maxwell dismisses Mrs Rand’s belief in her part in Jessica’s illness through arguing that Jessica did not die during her illness and therefore could not be reanimated as a walking corpse. Mrs Rand dejectedly accepts Dr Maxwell’s view point.
The Home Fort seems to once again try to draw Jessica to them through her effigy, but Betsy and Paul stop her at the gates to Fort Holland. Wesley is convinced that it is voodoo that is causing Jessica to try and leave the property, but Paul dismisses Wesley’s belief in the supernatural as kid’s stuff. When they are alone on the veranda, Wesley asks Betsy to euthanise Jessica because he feels that she is suffering and he also knows how much Betsy and Paul love each other, and that Jessica is an obstacle to them being together. Betsy refuses due to her hippocratic oath.
Once again, Jessica drifts to the main gate at Fort Holland, but is able to leave the property because Wesley helps her, as he also seems to be under the control of the Home Fort. He follows her to the beach, where he kills her with an arrow that he removed from Ti-Misery. Carrefour appears and pursues them down the beach, but Wesley proceeds to walk into the sea whilst carrying Jessica’s corpse. Carrefour watches as the two figures are consumed by the waves that wash onto the shore and over his feet.
Jessica’s body is discovered in the shallows by fishermen, before being taken, along with Wesley’s corpse, to Fort Holland, where Betsy and Paul mourn together.
A voice over at the film’s conclusion condemn’s Jessica’s actions, describing her as dead in life and asks God to pity the dead and give peace and happiness to the living:
Oh Lord God most holy, deliver them from the bitter pains of eternal death. The woman was a wicked woman, and she was dead in her own life. Yea lord, dead in the selfishness of her spirit. And the man followed her. Her steps led him down to evil, her feet took hold on death. Forgive him oh Lord, who knowest the secret of all hearts. Yea Lord, pity them who are dead, and give peace and happiness to the living.
The film is ambiguous about Jessica’s illness and what drove Wesley to kill her. It is the discretion of the viewer to decide whether or not a voodoo curse or a malarial disease caused Jessica’s illness, and whether or not those at the Home Fort drove Wesley to murder the women he loved, or if his grief was too consuming to continue to allow both himself and Jessica to exist in a state of limbo. Like Mr Rochester, Paul’s character is also ambiguous. He seems to be a good man, but the extent of the veracity of Wesley’s claims that his half brother verbally abused his wife are not fully explored, although Paul does admit that he and Jessica could both be cruel to each other.
The character of Jessica is much like that of Bertha Mason and Rebecca de Winter in Jane Eyre and Rebecca, as she haunts the lives of everyone in the story, and her beauty hides the supposed carelessness and cruelty of her nature. Unlike her literary comparatives, however, she is seen for much of the film, making her haunting presence less suggestive and more tangible.
I Walked With A Zombie is also a feminine bildungsroman, as it details Betsy’s maturation through her experiences of adult love and tragedy. By the end of the film she is a markedly different character to the naïve young woman who first came to the island thinking it a tropical paradise. It is on Saint Sebastian that she comes to understand the truth of Paul’s words at their first meeting: that beauty often hides cruelty and suffering.
Throughout the Shadows series, Adam provides fascinating insights into the lives of those involved in the making of Val Lewton’s masterstrokes in psychological horror, such as Val Lewton himself, Jacques Tourneur, Tom Conway, Sir Lancelot and Jean Brooks. I thought I’d take Adam’s lead and spotlight a star who I think deserves far more recognition, and who should have had a much longer career in Hollywood due to her subtle acting style and wonderful performances despite being cast in roles that were reserved for people of colour.
Theresa Harris was born on New Years Eve 1906 to parents who were former sharecroppers from Louisiana. Theresa would go on to study at the UCLA Conservatory of Music and Zoellner’s Conservatory of Music.
She arrived in Hollywood in 1929, where she was almost immediately cast in the role of maid to many white female stars of the 1930s and 40s. Despite this pigeon holing, Theresa managed to be incredibly memorable in her portrayal of the domestic servant, most notably as Chico in Baby Face alongside Barbara Stanwyck, and Ginger Rogers in Professional Sweetheart. Despite her very deft performances in both these films, she was credited last in Baby Face and did not receive any billing in Professional Sweetheart. Her lack of a credit in the latter film is most shocking because she plays a major role in the film’s plot.
She was given opportunities to play larger, and credited roles, in films such as I Walked With A Zombie, Out of the Past and Cat People, where she showed her impressive capacity for wit, subtlety and world weariness. Despite her talent, Theresa explained that:
I never had the chance to rise above the role of maid in Hollywood movies. My color was against me anyway you looked at it. The fact that I was not “hot” stamped me either as uppity or relegated me to the eternal role of stooge or servant. […] My ambition is to be an actress. Hollywood had no parts for me.
Theresa retired from acting in 1958, and married a doctor, George Robinson, with whom she shared a comfortable life thanks to the careful saving she had employed whilst working as an actress. She died at the age of seventy eight in 1985, having been largely forgotten by Hollywood despite starring in almost eighty films.
It has been a joy for me to be able to watch Theresa’s performances in Val Lewton’s films, as well as Baby Face. For me, she was an incredibly talented, and incredibly underrated, performer, who deserves to be recognised for her contribution to the industry.
Anyone else a fan of Theresa Harris? I would love to hear your thoughts on this lovely actress, and please do let me know if you know of any autobiographies about her or in which she appears.