I Walked with a Zombie is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
In its 69 minutes, I Walked with a Zombie packs a dense and fascinating allegory for the damning effects of slavery and the tenuous coexistence of cultures. Like many of the B-grade horror films produced by Val Lewton at RKO Studios, it began life with a certain set of parameters and expectations: saddled with the title I Walked with a Zombie, Lewton was tasked with adapting an American Weekly Magazine article about plantation workers in Haiti who are turned into "zombies" through rampant drug use, an insidious form of ongoing oppression. (One imagines RKO execs were mostly attracted to the title; such a storyline would have been hard to get by the Hollywood Hays Code at that time.) Instead, Lewton decided to make, as he called it, the "West Indies Jane Eyre," and concocted, with screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, a story about the coma-stricken wife of a plantation owner and the Canadian nurse who believes that voodoo magic may help cure her. There are no actual zombies in the film and it's often closer to romantic melodrama than horror (like the Brontë novel that inspired it), but these numerous conflicting forces make for Lewton & Company's most haunting film.
Early in the film Climax, we witness something that's never been present before in the work of Gaspar Noé: euphoria. It comes from a jaw-dropping dance number, filmed with characteristic bravado in one continuous take by Noé and cinematographer Benoît Debie. In a vacant school, in front of a glittering French flag, a virtuosic dance troupe leaps, contorts, gyrates, and performs other feats of bodily insanity to a thumping techno beat. It's a moment of both cinematic and athletic mastery, radiating with joy and energy, and it feels like a radical breakthrough in the career of a director who's so often seen as nihilistic and puerile.
Warning: major plot spoilers below!
In February 2017, in the unfathomable first months of Trumplandia, Jordan Peele's Get Out was released to nearly unanimous praise. Here, many critics said, was a film disturbingly indicative of where we were at as a country: simultaneously fetishizing and fearful of black culture, our social institutions engineered to segregate and oppress, with even supposedly progressive ideologies like white liberalism complicit in the exploitation of black manhood. It was indeed the bold, stylish introduction of a vital new voice in American cinema, and it reiterated what fans of Night of the Living Dead have known for years: the most audacious social and political ideas can be smuggled into the horror genre with relative ease and tremendous power.