Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dead Man (and Woman) Walking

Films: I Walked with a Zombie, La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of Satan, Black Sunday)
Format: DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan (Zombie), DVD from person collection (Black Sunday) on itty bitty bedroom television.

Most of the time, when we talk about influential people behind the scenes in the film industry, we talk about directors. In the case of the sadly short-lived Val Lewton, we’re talking about a producer. In terms of the movies he wrote and produced, he was much like Hitchcock—there’s a particular theme to Lewton’s work. His films all have a suspense angle, but take it another step further, adding a true supernatural element. Of all his films, Cat People is the greatest (my opinion) and most well known. I Walked with a Zombie fits his pattern, though.

Since this film was released in 1943, it’s worth noting that the zombie mentioned in the title is one of the traditional type. George Romero hadn’t created his flesh-eating ghouls yet, so the term “zombie” meant a corpse reanimated by witchcraft or Voodoo, often used as a servant. We start in Canada, where a young nurse named Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is hired by a sugar company to head out to the West Indies. She is to care for the wife of a plantation owner.

On the trip over, she meets the man she will be working for, Paul Holland (Tom Conway). While she is enchanted by the ocean and the scenery, Holland acts as the world’s meanest buzzkiller, telling her that where they are going is a place of sorrow and death. Once there, Betsy meets a few important people. First is the family maid, Alma (Theresa Harris), who welcomes her in. She also encounters Paul Holland’s half-brother, Wesley Rand (James Ellison). That night, she gets her first encounter with Holland’s wife Jessica (Christine Gordon). Jessica is silent, staring, and if not a zombie, doing the best impression of one ever. Betsy is freaked out by this, but stays.

Betsy also starts discovering some of the family secrets. While out with Wes, she overhears a local singer playing a ballad about the Holland family. According to the song, Wes and Jessica loved each other, and then Jessica took very ill, turning her into the catatonic sleepwalker she’s become. Wes stops the musicians, but later, when he is sloppy drunk, the musician finishes the song for Betsy’s benefit. Here she also meets the men’s mother, Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett, who looks quite a bit like Jane Goodall).

Betsy soon suspects that Jessica is not sick, but is a zombie returned to life through Voodoo ritual. Alma aids her in this belief, and Betsy takes Jessica on a disturbing night stroll through the sugar cane fields to get help. It is here that they encounter the most disturbing spectre in the film in the form of the guardian, Carrefour (Darby Jones).

What works in this film is the atmosphere. Similar to the earlier Cat People, there really isn’t anything here in the way of gore, blood, or anything else. What there is, though, is a series of creepy moments, a sense of unrelenting paranoia, and claustrophobia. More remarkable, this film does not take the position that the people of the unnamed West Indian island of the story are terribly backwards, superstitious people who are to be treated like children. Instead, in general, their beliefs are given enough weight to carry the story. Many of the white people in the film give lip service to the crazy native beliefs, but as the film goes on, it becomes evident that the Voodoo has real power, and that the plantation owners believe in it as well. It’s not a film that could have been made by an American director in the ‘40s.

La Maschera del Demonio (released as Black Sunday in the U.S. and The Mask of Satan elsewhere) is a tale of horror, vampirism, Satanism, and the dead returning to life from director Mario Bava. Filmed in Italian and dubbed, this film is a prime example not only of horror films, but also a hint toward what would become known as giallo films a few short years later. Bava, in fact, was one of the first giallo directors. While often about crime, giallo films tend to have horrific or supernatural elements in them. This film isn’t all the way there, but Bava is credited with the first one ever a few years after this was made. Certainly the atmospheric camera, use of music, and hints of eroticism are leading the way to what would become a major Italian tradition.

This film starts with a 16th or 17th century ritual execution of a pair of witches. One is Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele); the other is her demonic lover, Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici). Asa is convicted of consorting with Satan, and has his brand burned onto her back. Rather than deny the charge, she curses her accusers, claiming that she will live again thanks to the power of Satan. Her punishment is a gruesome one—a huge metal, spiked mask is hammered onto her face in one of the most shocking and, frankly, truly awesome opening sequences I’ve ever seen. Sadly for the people of Moldavia, the ritual burning goes badly, and rain douses the fires that were consuming Asa’s and Javutich’s bodies. They are buried, him in unhallowed ground and her in the family tomb.

Two centuries later, two travelers come upon the tomb. These men are doctors, Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Andre Gorobec (John Richardson). What they discover is that it would be better for them to not mess around with dead bodies. They find Asa’s tomb, fitted with a cross and a window so that, should she rest uneasy, she will be forced to look at the cross, preventing her from rising. Kruvajan is attacked by a bat, and in fighting it off, manages to smash the cross, break the window on the tomb, and cut himself. He and Gorobec remove the mask from the corpse and discover that the body looks recently dead despite being in the tomb for two centuries.

Later, after they have left, the blood from Kruvajan’s wound drips into the eyes of Asa, who is reanimated by it. She calls to her dead lover, who also rises up from the grave. The two then plot to take over the body of Katia Vajda (also played by Barbara Steele) so that Asa can live again.

This is a fun, gothic film. It’s not particularly scary for anyone who has seen a scary movie before, although this probably wasn’t the case in 1961. The vampires are particularly nasty and creepy, and when fresh out of their graves, they are incredibly gooey. Barbara Steele is disturbing with the massive holes in her face, and when she attempts (and succeeds) to seduce Kruvajan, she is both horrifying and erotic. It’s a creepy moment.

This film is all about the atmosphere. It’s evident that Bava started his career in film as a cinematographer. This is more than just silly fun, though. It takes itself completely seriously, and for that, it’s worth watching. The dub is good, too, and the effect of Katia aging while Asa gets younger is surprisingly smooth and effective. It’s histrionic, it’s overacted, and I love the hell out of it.

Why to watch I Walked with a Zombie: Surprisingly respectful of non-Western culture and decidedly creepy atmosphere.
Why not to watch: The dude with bug eyes.

Why to watch La Maschera del Demonio: The most awesome film opening ever.
Why not to watch: The dead things are all…gooey.


  1. The atmosphere is the hero of "I Walked with a Zombie". It is so effective. And it is indeed remarkable how open the film is to the voodoo themes. By not rejecting it it gives the film a real chill.

    1. Yes! So many films of the era play a game of cultural superiority--the native beliefs are backward and stupid, yadda yadda yadda. This one takes them seriously, which forces the audience to do the same. Suddenly those things that might have been laughed off have real weight to them.

  2. I think we had almost the same experience watching Mask of Satan / Black Sunday, expect for the dub.
    I have never heard of Giallo movies. Can you explain what that is?

    1. Gialli are Italian horror films, usually with a crime/mystery element. You'll get a few of them eventually--The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a really good example of the style.