“She makes a beautiful zombie, doesn’t she?”: I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
FILM REVIEW BY JOHN T. PLUNKET
There is a sly addition to the credits at the beginning of I Walked with a Zombie: “Any similarity to actual persons, living, dead, or possessed, is purely coincidental”. The brainchild of producer Val Lewton, and directed by Jacques Tourneur, who also worked with Lewton on The Cat People (1942) and The Leopard Man (1943), the film itself bears no similarity to others in the zombie genre. It’s a unique production from before the advent of the stereotypical flesh-eating undead.
Written by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, the plot mixes voodoo with a dash of Jane Eyre (it’s often claimed that I Walked with a Zombie is “based on” Jane Eyre, but that’s a bit of a stretch). Lewton himself had a large hand in the script, as he did with many of the films he produced.
A Canadian nurse, Betsy Connell (the doe-eyed Frances Dee) comes to the Caribbean island of St. Sebastian, to tend to the wife of debonair sugar planter Paul Holland (Tom Conway, also in Lewton’s The Cat People and The Seventh Victim (1943). Paul’s wife Jessica (the tall and stately Christine Gordon, in a flowing white gown), has lapsed into a strange, catatonic state.
Initially swept away by the tropical atmosphere and the attentions of her employer, Betsy soon grows confused and frightened, and with good reason: Jessica herself is eerie, Paul is full of secrets and gloom (“There’s no beauty here- only death and decay!”), his jealous, alcoholic half-brother Wes (James Ellison) quarrels and drops cryptic hints, and their mother (Edith Barrett, who was Mrs. Vincent Price for a time) may be insane. When Betsy goes to town, a calypso singer (Sir Lancelot, who also appeared in The Ghost Ship and The Curse of the Cat People) sings an innuendo-filled song about the family.
The question raised is whether Paul is responsible for his wife’s condition- does he even want her to get well? Despite this, Betsy falls hopelessly in love with Paul, and vows to heal his wife to make him happy. Voodoo hovers in the background, with pulsing drums and conch-shell trumpets. Led on by the talk of the servant Alma (Theresa Harris), Betsy becomes intrigued, and wonders if Jessica can be cured through a ritual. Will her attempt work, or will Betsy end up doing more harm than good?
I Walked with a Zombie is rich in atmosphere and visual appeal. Cinematographer J. Roy Hunt makes excellent use of the play of light and shadow from Venetian blinds, tropical vegetation, and wrought-iron grillwork. With a relatively small budget (RKO required that each of his films be made for under $150,000), Lewton somehow managed to turn out detailed, convincing sets and evoke the Caribbean island setting almost perfectly: the turbulent sea, the constant island breezes agitating the vegetation and billowing the curtains, even a figurehead of the island’s namesake, in an agony of arrows, mirror Betsy’s emotional turmoil.
Added to the striking visuals are the surprisingly nuanced and believable characters. Even the bit players are memorable. One starts out wondering who will turn out to be good and who evil and finishes with the realization that such simplicity is for a lesser grade of horror movies. None of the island natives are presented in a stereotypical way. Nor are the voodoo ceremonies sensationalized: the religion is shown in a way that is neither hokey nor particularly threatening.
In all aspects, I Walked with a Zombie is a treat. It’s quite a bit more intelligent, subtle, and multifaceted than many horror films before and since. That said, those looking for action will not find much here. There is much drama and atmosphere, but the horror is subdued, only overt during a nighttime journey through the sugarcane fields- and anytime the gangly, staring Carrefour (Darby Jones) is present.
Val Lewton produced an unfortunately small body of work before his untimely death in 1951; I Walked with a Zombie was one of his favorites. After watching it, viewers may be inspired to see all the rest.
John T. Plunket is a long-time horror enthusiast who loves discovering old and new stories and films in the genre. He sometimes writes about horror at http://coldhandinmine.blogspot.com/