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Surly Cinema: Zombies on Broadway

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

Fredi Washington in Ouanga.

I watched UCLA Film & Television Archive's restoration of Ouanga (1935), an early zombie film shot in Jamaica. Though creaky as drama and filmmaking, this low budget "quota quickie" is notable for its themes of miscegenation and for its star, actress and civil rights activist Fredi Washington. Washington plays Klili, a black plantation owner and voodoo practitioner whose love is spurned by another plantation owner, who is white. Washington's first movie role was in Black and Tan (1929) with Duke Ellington, and she had a small role in The Emperor Jones (1933). She also was Cab Calloway's love interest in the musical short Cab Calloway's Hi-De-Ho (1934). She's best known for Imitation of Life (1934), in which she plays a young light-skinned woman who decides to pass as white.

Washington and Sheldon Leonard.

Oanga also features an early performance by Sheldon Leonard who, as the mixed-race plantation overseer in love with Klili, provides the third corner of the love triangle.

This wasn't Leonard's only tangle with Voodoo. He's also in the comedy Zombies on Broadway (1945). In addition to Bela Lugosi and the forgettable comedy team of Carney and Brown, Zombies featured actor Darby Jones and Calypso singer Sir Lancelot. Jones and Lancelot had both previously appeared in I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's poetic zombie drama.

Christine Gordon, Francis Dee and Darby Jones in a lobby card from I Walked With a Zombie.

I Walked With a Zombie is one of my favorite films. The entire sombre production is tinged with a melacholy drawn from the lingering effects of slavery and colonialism. George Romero wasn't the first to use the zombie genre to comment on the issue of race. It was there from the very start in films like Ouanga and I Walked With a Zombie.

The statue of Saint Sebastian aka Ti-Misery, the century-old figurehead from a slave ship in I Walked With a Zombie.

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