I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 9 min.

Release Date: April 30th, 1943 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Jacques Tourneur Actors: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Christine Gordon, Teresa Harris

 


 

A

t a sugar company in Ottawa, Nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is directed to a rendezvous in Antigua with Paul Holland (Tom Conway) for a boat trip to the West Indies. There, she is to attend to Holland’s sick wife Jessica (Christine Gordon), who exhibits incredibly strange symptoms of intellectual paralysis. Arriving at Fort Holland, a magnificent estate full of lush trees and faithful servants, Connell is introduced to Wesley Rand (James Ellison), Paul’s whiskey-loving half-brother, who works with him at the St. Sebastian sugar mill.

Despite the lavishness of the premises, eerie jungle drums and howling conches pierce the evening air, and a ghostly figure drifts through the courtyard. As if possessed by a supernatural force, the spindly, towering Jessica glides about, garbed in a wispy white gown, eyes wide and unblinking. Betsy’s new patient is a mental case, though local legends and superstitions plague the islanders, insinuating that her situation is more along the lines of zombification. Dr. Maxwell (James Bell) explains that her spinal cord was damaged from a tropical fever, causing her to lose all willpower; now, she’s a sleepwalker who can never be awakened.

At just barely over an hour long, “I Walked with a Zombie” doesn’t waste a second getting into the plot. Characters are introduced swiftly, small talk is kept to an absolute minimum, and creepy happenings occur without hesitation. A picturesque, spiraling stone staircase sets the stage for thrills, with the expressionless zombie woman making a sudden appearance and unnerving approach to a cornered Betsy. Later, the startling stare of a glassy-eyed native (Darby Jones) interrupts Jessica’s guidance through the omen-laced jungle for a ritualistic consultation with the houngan. And yet, as the film draws to its conclusion, sequences begin to drag.

“Do you believe in witchcraft?” A romance is at the heart of the equation, too, though shock treatments, maddening jealousy, and a voodoo priest certainly make this light horror feature singular. Produced by Val Lewton (this was only his second production, following “Cat People”), written by Curt Siodmak (“The Invisible Woman,” “The Wolf Man,” and “Black Friday,” among many others), and directed by Jacques Tourneur, this classic frightener conceals subtext on racism, inequality, control, and even assisted suicide and the ultimate sacrifice, linked to the hysteria of strange rites and the oppression of projected self-loathing and fear. In a particularly clever gimmick, a guitarist strums a tune and sings a song about Jessica’s ailment, with verses that continue to be updated with new lines as Betsy’s presence interferes with and changes the narrative. Told as a flashback and memoir, along the lines of “Out of Africa,” with notes of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and a distinct resemblance to the plotline of “Jane Eyre” (though Inez Wallace is credited with an original story), “I Walked with a Zombie” is a rather existential, darkly poetic tale of undying love, spellbinding, and zombies – long before such hocus-pocus concepts became mainstream in horror.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10