I Walked with a Zombie premieres

April 21 ,1943

By Peter Bowen | April 21, 2010
I Walked with a Zombie I Walked with a Zombie

The title for I Walked with a Zombie was not producer Val Lewton’s first choice. In fact, it wasn’t his choice at all.

The title for I Walked with a Zombie was not producer Val Lewton’s first choice. In fact, it wasn’t his choice at all. When he was contracted to take over RKO’s B-movie horror division, one of the conditions was that film titles would be dictated by RKO’s marketing department. While his first film’s title, Cat People, provided some poetic license, I Walked with a Zombie offered little room for misunderstanding. Taken from a lurid story written by Inez Wallace for the American Weekly about life in Haiti, Lewton handed his screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray a copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Victorian novel Jane Eyre with instructions to use the book for the film’s narrative model. (Years before while working for producer David O. Selznick, Lewton had helped adapt the book for the production that would premiere in 1944.) In Zombie, the Jane Eyre character is Betsy, a nurse who travels from Canada to the West Indies to care for a woman with a mysterious mental paralysis. Lewton worked with director Jacques Tourneur to transform the title’s morbid tone into a film of striking visual beauty. And rather than exploit the Caribbean context, Lewton used it for effect, casting the singer Sir Lancelot to perform Calypso music––perhaps for the first time in a Hollywood film––throughout the film, serving, according to Lewton, “as a Greek chorus, wandering in seven or eight times and explaining the plot.” Despite such classical touches, Lewton never lost a sense of humor for the material, as demonstrated by his opening credit disclaimer that denied any similarities to “actual persons, living, dead or possessed”.

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