Val Lewton's and Jacques Tourneur's film misleadingly-titled I Walked with a Zombie (1943) has interested many recent critics because of its status as what Kamilla Elliott would call a "de(re)composing adaptation" (in which "novel and film decompose, merge, and form a new composition at 'underground' levels of reading") of Jane Eyre . Most of them have focused on the film's striking anticipation of postcolonial interpretations of the novel, which come across as Edward Said-ish quite avant la lettre: the film moves the action to the Holland family's Saint Sebastian sugar cane plantation and pointedly remarks on the role of slavery in establishing the family's wealth. By the same token, this is also where controversy over the film's racial politics enters in. While the various Black characters have far more prominence than in many films of this period, they're either exoticized (the houngan and other vodou practitioners at the houmfort), alien (Carrefour the zombie), or conventionally deferential (Alma); only the anonymous calypso singer, played by Tourneur favorite Sir Lancelot, seems to escape easy classification. The back-and-forth between racial stereotyping and anti-racist commentary strikes me as in line with one of Tourneur's later films, Stars in My Crown (1950), in which the white protagonist saves a passive Black man from the KKK. In the case of I Walked with a Zombie, though, I'd suggest that something else is at work: the film engages with and racializes one of the standard topoi in Victorian and post-Victorian horror, the wise servant.
About three years ago, I quipped that some of the "practical applications of Gothic fiction" included such useful life lessons as "[d]o not attend college," or, at least, "always listen to the housekeeper or butler." Victorian ghost stories regularly feature well-educated, genteel types who have been raised, in either good rationalist or good Protestant fashion, not to believe in such things as haunts, vampires, or other ghoulish things. Frequently, the only people around who prove savvy about such things are...the servants. (If the servant is Roman Catholic, all the better.) The servants are unlearned, emotional, and superstitious, and yet their repository of knowledge--usually passed down through oral tradition, which may also be gendered female--turns out to trump that of the middle- and upper-class men and women who stumble into supernatural affairs. (Le Fanu's "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street" exemplifies this topos in action; it's no accident that the victims are doctors.) Nevertheless, this knowledge carries no social value, beyond that of potentially saving master, mistress, and the kiddies from the what-have-you. Even though it calls reason's adequacy into question, such familiarity with the supernatural does nothing to challenge the usual run of class or gender hierarchies; in fact, it consolidates them, by identifying supernatural awareness as the sort of thing one would expect to be possessed by people otherwise in need of rule.
I Walked with a Zombie's representation of vodou as a potentially functional power borrows heavily from the wise servant topos. Alma introduces the nurse, Betsy Connell, to vodou, suggesting that it's more powerful than Western medicine, and the men and women at the houmfort diagnose the catatonic Jessica as a zombie (she doesn't bleed when stabbed). Moreover, Jessica apparently responds to the sabreur's long-distance manipulation. Similarly, the calypso singer serves as the local repository of popular tradition about the Holland family; despite his apparent deference to Wesley Rand, younger brother of Jessica's husband Paul Holland (and would-be lover of Jessica himself), the calypso singer makes no bones about coming back later to finish his song for Betsy. So far, so in line with the tradition. However, the film goes on to inject a note of skepticism into the topos, for it's never clear if the rituals work or not. As Chris Fujiwara points out, the film "never obliges the viewer to commit to a natural or a supernatural explanation of Jessica Holland's state." Mrs. Rand, the Christian widow who insinuates herself into the houmfort, believes that Jessica's state is her fault, the result of her own possession, in which she asked that the houngan turn Jessica into a zombie. Jessica fell ill that very night--but is that just coincidence? And Jessica's death at Wesley's hand appears to be the sabreur's doing--or is the causality an illusion, a mere artifact of the film's cuts between the sabreur and the doomed adulterers? One might ask how this momentary focus on the film itself, the way in which editing produces the effect of causality, reflects on both voudou and modern technology. Does the cutting enact the possession, or does it "merely" generate a fiction of possession? Or, to borrow Mrs. Rand's terminology, if the houngan (probably herself, given that she takes over the role) cures one woman by a dose of good "psychology," is this the cinematic equivalent--mundane technology masquerading as magic? (Still, this thoroughly rationalized reading of his practices doesn't account for Carrefour.) The ambiguity here--who knows best?--further unsettles the already unsettled question of who knows what in horror. However, the film's opening and final shots suggest that the potential danger posed by vodou--specifically, its apparent ability to strip white men and women of their self-possession, in a bleak echo of slavery--has been defused by Jessica's and Wesley's deaths. The opening shot, which we at first might think pictures Betsy with her lover, is actually Betsy walking companionably along the beach with Carrefour; in the closing shots, Carrefour carries Jessica's body back to the plantation, and we see that the symbolic St. Sebastian figurehead (renamed Ti-Misery) has been stripped of its arrows. On the one hand, these shots suggest that voudou can, for all intents and purposes, lose its status as a potentially subversive threat; on the other, the adulterers' deaths apparently purify the family, easing the burden of its guilt (which does not follow logically, to say the least). Or...does it? It's a remarkably open ending.
 Kamilla Elliott, Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003), 157.