A Canadian nurse, Betsy Connell (Frances Dee, Of Human Bondage), travels to a Caribbean island to take care of the sick wife of a wealthy landowner (Tom Conway, The Seventh Victim). Locals believe the landowner’s wife is a “zombie,” but nurse Betsy quickly dismisses any talk of the supernatural. A series of fantastic events force Betsy to consider the illogical and unimaginable.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“She makes a beautiful zombie, doesn’t she?”
Famed producer Val Lewton’s second RKO production is every bit as interesting as its predecessor, the fascinating Cat People (1942). I dare to say that I Walked with a Zombie surpasses the aforementioned movie in sheer ambition, scope and craftsmanship.
This is a thinly disguised adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic of literature Jane Eyre. At first glance, it seems like something that shouldn’t work at all. It’s truly fascinating to see how well Brontë’s book lends itself to a macabre treatment. Most surprising is the fact that many of Brontë’s themes remain intact in this regurgitation of her work.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) from a script written by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, I Walked with a Zombie has a title that reeks “silly B-movie.” The film is indeed very low-budget, but this is anything but silly. The film covers lots of ground in a relatively short amount of time. Some elements have been carried over from Brontë’s book, other ideas are entirely the product of producer Lewton’s mind.
I Walked with a Zombie explores things like gender roles, social classes and the idea of how appearances can be deceiving. First, there is the contrast between the nurse (a proudly independent professional) and the zombie-like spouse (a not so subtle stab at the “trophy wife”). There is also a running commentary on social hierarchies on the island. The film suggests that social inequality doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of power. You wonder, “Who is really in charge here?”
Finally, there is an interesting examination of the old “science versus religion” debate. It’s not an antagonist relationship, I Walked with a Zombie argues. In fact, it’s kinda symbiotic; one can’t exist without the other. That’s a really interesting argument that forces us to reevaluate our ideas regarding spirituality and secularism.
I Walked with a Zombie doesn’t forget that this is primarily a horror movie. There are unforgettable spooky moments sprinkled throughout the movie. The walk through the sugar cane fields is a brilliant sequence. I also loved the intense voodoo ceremony. I watched the movie late at night and I got really really nervous! I did feel the finale was a bit rushed, but it didn’t hurt the movie.
Frances Dee and Tom Conway (George Sanders’s brother) are very good. The cast also includes top-billed James Ellison (The Gang’s All Here) as Conway’s half-brother, James Bell (The Spiral Staircase) as Dr. Maxwell, Edith Barrett (Ladies in Retirement) as Mrs. Rand and Sir Lancelot (To Have and Have Not) as Calypso Singer. The inimitable Darby Jones (Zombies on Broadway) plays Carrefour, The Zombie.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
I hate to sound like a nostalgist, but… what the heck has happened to American cinema? This cheap B-movie has more layers than your current award-winning Hollywood epic. I Walked with a Zombie proves that you don’t need much of anything to make something interesting, challenging and richly rewarding. It’s one of my favorite ’40s horror films. Highly recommended! B&W, 69 minutes, Not Rated.