The Val Lewton Collection: I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)Synopsis:

A Canadian nurse, Betsy Connell (Frances Dee, Of Human Bondage), travels to a Caribbean island to take care of the sick wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway, The Seventh Victim), a wealthy landowner. The locals believe that Holland’s wife is a “zombie,” but Betsy quickly dismisses any talks 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?” – James Bell as Dr. Maxwell

Val Lewton’s second RKO production is every bit as interesting as it predecessor, the fascinating Cat People (1942). I dare to say that I Walked with a Zombie surpasses Cat People in sheer ambition, scope, and brilliant 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 (remember, this is decades before Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies). But I ended up being amazed at 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 the book. Some ideas are entirely the product of Lewton’s imaginative mind.

Like Jane EyreI Walked with a Zombie explores things like gender roles, social classes, and the idea of how appearances can be deceiving. Firstly, 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 about social hierarchies in the island. The film suggests that social inequality doesn’t necessarily means lack of power. You wonder, “who is really in power here?”

Finally, there is an interesting examination of the old science versus religion debate. It’s not an antagonist relationship, the film argues. In fact, it is kinda symbiotic — one can’t exit without the other. That’s a really interesting argument that challenges us to rethink our biases regarding spirituality and secularity.

I Walked with a Zombie doesn’t forget that this is primarily a horror movie. There are some unforgettable spooky moments sprinkled throughout the movie. The walk through the sugar cane fields is a brilliant sequence. I also loved the voodoo ceremony. I watched the movie late at night and I got really really really nervous! I felt like the finale was a bit rushed, but it doesn’t damage the movie.

Dee and Conway are very good. The cast also includes top-billed James Ellison (The Gang’s All Here) as Wesley Rand, James Bell (The Spiral Staircase) as Dr. Maxwell, Edith Barrett (Ladies in Retirement) as Mrs. Rand, Sir Lancelot (To Have and Have Not) as Calypso Singer, and the inimitable Darby Jones (Zombies on Broadway) as 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 Class-A, award-wining 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.

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4 responses to “The Val Lewton Collection: I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

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