I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
i walked with a zombie | jacques tourneur | curt siodmak | ardel wray | frances dee | tom conway | james ellison | zombie | zombies | voodoo | fantasy | united states | ritual | romance | val lewton | drama | edith barrett | christine gordon | theresa harris | darby jones
Film: I Walked with a Zombie
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writer: Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray
Starring: Frances Dee, Tom Conway and James Ellison
This is a movie that I originally saw a few years ago. I was working through my list of horror films starting with the letter B and this was on the same DVD that I have with Body Snatcher. I thought this was interesting is that it has been remade, loosely, into a Tales from the Crypt movie – Ritual. It was one that I was intrigued to revisit as I wasn’t the biggest fan from what I remembered.
Synopsis: a nurse is hired to care for the wife of a sugar plantation owner, who has been acting strangely, on a Caribbean Island.
We begin seeing two people walking on the beach and there is voiceover narration done by Frances Dee. She is Betsy Connell. We see as she is being interviewed for a position. This job is to take care of a sick woman. She inquires more about it and then learns that it is on an island in the Caribbean by the name of St. Sebastian.
She is on a ship and admiring the view when a man tells her that it is not as beautiful as she thinks. He is Wesley Rand (James Ellison). He is quite negative, but she finds him to be good looking and listens to his reasoning. It isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t change the fact that the scenery is breathtaking.
This man turns out to be the half-brother of the man in charge of the plantation. His brother is Paul Holland (Tom Conway). He is the husband of the sick woman she is there to care for. This woman is named Jessica (Christine Gordon). Jessica has been in a near comatose state for a while. She is not dead. She can move around on her own if guided but doesn’t speak. It is zombie like.
That night, Betsy hears someone crying in the tower that Jessica is kept. She goes to check and meets her. She does not answer, but continues to walk, trapping her. Betsy screams. This is when we meet the maid, Alma (Theresa Harris). Things are different on the island and it takes this outsider time to get used to it.
Also on this island is the mother to Wesley and Paul. Her name is Dr. Rand (Edith Barrett). She avoids the family home and mostly sticks to the clinic that is in town. There is also a doctor on the island, Dr. Maxwell (James Bell).
Things on the island get strange. We hear drums in the distance and that alerts Wesley that the mill needs him. He tries to get to know Betsy, but she is smitten by Paul. She is there to help his wife though. She doesn’t believe in the voodoo that is happening on the island, but gets the idea that Jessica did. She takes her to a ritual one night in hopes that it will help. It is going there that she meets Carrefour (Darby Jones), a zombie. When the natives see Jessica, they want her back. It becomes a struggle with the pandora’s box that Betsy has opened.
Now that is where I’m going to leave my recap and introduction of the characters. What I learned ahead of seeing this was that this is one of the most popular pre-Night of the Living Dead zombie films that are out there. It is up there with White Zombie. Now I bring this up, because Night is the first zombie film of re-animated corpses eating the flesh of people. What we get here are the mindless slaves being controlled by voodoo. It is an interesting move that we have Jessica as one of them. The explanation there makes sense. There’s another in the form of Carrefour. His look is creepy.
With that established, the crux of this movie is a love story. It is a complicated one. Betsy falls for Paul. He’s married to Jessica though. She was in love with Wesley and he felt the same. The reason she became a zombie was something that I didn’t remember. It is an interesting one though and not necessarily one that you would expect. Of these people, Betsy is the one with the best heart. She is doing whatever she can to help Jessica, even if that means by curing her, she will stay married to the man that she loves. Paul is bitter with the world and part of that came from his marriage. There is also Mrs. Rand and she plays an interesting role in all this.
I then want to move over to the source material this is based on. This is adapted from an article of the same title that was written by Inez Wallace. The producer, Val Lewton, thought that it was too clinched and instead loosely based it on ‘Jane Eyre’. This is interesting to me. When I looked up the original source material, it did seem that we got to see and meet Jessica when she’s not a zombie. I do feel that might add another dimension. I’m glad the route this goes instead.
All that is left then with the story are the voodoo and the zombie aspects. For the former, we do get to see a few rituals. The first one is when Betsy brings Jessica to the natives for their help. We then see as they want her back to finish what they were doing. I like that this seems a more authentic. They also don’t do much with zombie makeup. Since they aren’t reanimated corpses, they don’t need to. Carrefour has a great stare and his eyes seem so large. Jessica also does well at being stoic. This second time around made me appreciate these elements more.
That should be enough for this so let me go to the acting. Everyone here is a bit subdue. Dee is fine as Betsy. I like that she has a good heart and doing what she can to save her patient. It feels like The Skeleton Key might borrow elements from here. Conway is good as this bitter man and the same could be said for Ellison. They don’t get along and that creates tension. Barrett is an interesting character. She works for her role. I’d then say that Gordon and Jones are good as our two zombies. Other than that, Theresa Harris, Bell, Sir Lancelot and the rest of the cast rounded this out for what was needed.
The last things then will be with filmmaking. I love the setting. Being that this is on a Caribbean Island, it feels isolated. That makes me believe something like this could happen here. It also feels hot and at night it is worse. The cinematography is good. They do interesting things with camera movement that builds tension, especially the introduction to Carrefour. Other than that, I liked the soundtrack. The steady beating of the drums also makes it eerie during the night shots.
In conclusion, this film is a classic and well done. We are getting a complicated love story but setting it on the backdrop of this island where people have different beliefs. The acting is good with Gordon and Jones being the bright spots with having little to work with. The location of the does add to the horror. The concept and story of this film was fine. It is basic and something we’ve seen before If you want to see what zombie films were before this creature became what we know it, then watch this film. This is one of the best examples there. I can’t recommend this to everyone unless you like this era of cinema.
My Rating: 7.5 out of 10