I Walked With A Zombie

US (1943) Dir. Jacques Tourneur

The year of this film’s release might imply it to be an early zombie movie (the first was 1932’s White Zombie) but the zombies in both of these films are not the reanimated corpses we’ve come to associate with zombies per George A. Romero’s seminal Night Of The Living Dead. This is something quite different…

Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is hired to treat the sick wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway), a sugar plantation owner on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. An illness that affected her spinal cord has left Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) without the willpower to move on her own accord. Yet one her first night at the house, Betsy witnesses Jessica wandering through the courtyard like a ghost.

Betsy falls in love with Paul but knows it cannot be, thus is determined to find a cure for Jessica. Upon learning of a possible Voodoo cure from Paul’s half mother doctor Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), Betsy takes Jessica to be treated by the witch doctor, only to discover more than she bargained for.

Like its predecessor, the zombies here are victims of Voodoo thus are not flesh eating, decomposing corpses having returned from the dead, which was probably just as well for audiences in 1943 but disappointing for modern viewers. Ironically, the current problem of the drug Spice leaving users “zombified” gives it a modern relevance with its origins coming from an article about drug addled “zombie” plantation workers in Haiti.

I Walked With A Zombie could therefore potentially be transplanted to any city centre on a Sunday morning featuring inert Spiced up clubbers slumped in the street and not miss a beat! However, the central love story is lifted from Charlotte Brontë’s celebrated novel Jane Eyre (trivia: a film adaptation of which Edith Barrett also appeared in the same year) although I don’t think there has been a direct zombie crossover of that tale yet.

The comparisons between Betsy and Brontë’s eponymous heroine are mainly limited to the employee falling in love with her employer with the sick wife. Paul Holland is a rather brusque and stuffy man and tries to deter Betsy from the onset by telling her the island is full of misery and evil. Why advertise for a nurse if you’re going to put her off?

Paul later claims he was trying to do Betsy a favour but it didn’t work but Paul’s half brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) had already painted a negative picture of Paul, alluding to him being the reason Jessica is in the state she is in. But Wesley is soon revealed as an alcoholic drinking the family profits away but Paul is so cruel, he refuses to keep him away from the booze.

Quite how this makes Betsy fall for Paul does not compute but fall for him she does, and to make Paul truly happy Betsy thinks curing Jessica is the answer – which means she is sacrificing her own love for Paul when she essentially has a free run with him as Jessica is practically catatonic therefore wouldn’t know if Paul was having a fling with Betsy. Not that I’m advocating infidelity but the path is rather clear for them if morally wrong.

Unfortunately, there is a lot that doesn’t make sense in this film, and even though it runs for a brisk 66 minutes it piles on layers of pertinent questions but offers no satisfactory answers. From Wesley’s beef with Paul, to the reveal of the cause of Jessica’s condition, the script is a hotch potch of ideas that writers Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray seem unable to take anywhere, which given Siodmak’s pedigree is a disappointment.

While the family drama covers a lot of the story, the real point of interest is the zombie aspect with the Voodoo. Like other horror stories, the foundation is laid in a superstition which in this case was brought about by the white man, here, the Holland clan, bringing slavery to the island. This is represented by a statue of Saint Sebastian, aka Ti-Misery, being pierced by arrows, although the local black community seem to be as free as any.

Interestingly, the black cast are not portrayed in the usual reductive role of the simple servile types, instead shown to be articulate, well-mannered people who just happen to believe in Voodoo. There are no signs of them being slaves or oppressed in anyway but their secretive black magic practices suggest this is something of their own to be kept from the Hollands, although there is a twist there too.

Figuring out the story and staying awake were the two biggest challenges I found when watching this film but to make it easier, the visuals are as atmospheric as they are eye-catching. Employing a mix of noir and German Expressionism, shadows are integral in establishing mood and terror, whilst the scene in a swaying wheat field almost certainly influenced the classic Japanese horror Onibaba 21 years later.

Of the cast, Frances Dee was likeable as Betsy, starting out as a strong-minded woman who soon withered under the grip of love but without becoming a simpering damsel in distress. Edith Barrett was a solid matriarch but at 36, she needed a lot of make-up to convince us she was mother to 33 year-old James Ellison and 39 year-old Tom Conway, the latter the brother of George Sanders, who shared his looks but not his panache. 

The two with the hardest jobs were Christine Gordon and Darby Jones as the two zombies. Both had to stare fixedly into the distance like their bodies were uninhabited (the former always flawlessly presented), which can’t have been easy, especially Darby whose unnaturally wide-open eyes made him suitably eerie. 

Despite its revered status as a horror classic I Walked With A Zombie didn’t excite much, proving more of a chore than treat. Aesthetically wonderful and creative but the story lacked substance and coherence for me.