Much of what we see in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is impressionistic and inconsequential, a shadow play of strange superimpositions and light dancing on surfaces. At the same time, much of the dialogue remains prosaic, and is delivered in curiously flat tones. As a result, a considerable amount of the narrative functions of the film are handed over to two elements of the soundtrack: the voice-over and the (mostly diegetic) music.
The major thematic concerns of the film are set in place by the contrast between the near-ubiquitous voodoo drumming and the brief fragment of Chopin’s Etude in E, Opus 10. The opposition here is not, however, the obvious one between white and black, reason and superstition, or Christian missionaries and voodoo priests – as the film soon makes clear, such boundaries are not nearly as stable as they may at first seem.
The Chopin piece comes to stand, rather, for a kind of absent big Other in a place where all moral authority seems to have collapsed. Paul Holland (Tom Conway) thus plays the romantic piano repertoire as if to force some dignity, some reserve upon himself in a desperate situation. The drums, by contrast, represent what Lacan called ‘lamella’, a sort of undead persistence, a horrifyingly plastic partial object; as such, the sound is associated as much with the baroquely polygonal lines of desire connecting almost all the film’s characters as with the voodoo ceremonial these nets get caught up in. As Slavoj Žižek says of the lamella, voodoo magic, as imagined by Tourneur, does not so much exist as insist.
On the other hand, there is the voice-over, which comes in two parts, both of which pertain to aspects of the Christian liturgy: the fraught confession of the nurse, Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), which opens the film, and the prayer that closes the film. But the voice-over does not cover the full extent, or even the greater part of the storytelling, with practically all the backstory being delivered in the form of song. The ‘Papa Legba’ song that we hear in the voodoo ceremony delivers the mythological background, while the family history of the film’s central half-brothers and the wife that came between them is sung by calypso singer Sir Lancelot, who makes a cameo appearance singing his ‘Fort Holland Calypso Song’, written especially for the film. Stripped of its original title, its perverse mystical associations – and sometimes even its writers’ credit – the tune would later become a major international hit for groups such as Peter Tosh and the Wailers, the Kingston Trio, and even Madness.