When a friend of this blog mentioned to me in an email that the film was airing on Turner Classic Movies the other evening, I recorded it on my DVR. I found the movie very worthwhile, with excellent performances, great mood, and stylish direction by Jacques Tourneur.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE was the middle of three films Tourneur made with RKO producer Val Lewton, who was known for turning out atmospheric thrillers on a minimal budget. Their first film together was CAT PEOPLE (1942), and ZOMBIE would be followed by THE LEOPARD MAN (1943).
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is the story of Betsy Connell (Dee), a Canadian nurse who travels to the West Indies sugar plantation of wealthy Paul Holland (Conway) in order to care for his catatonic wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon). Betsy quickly falls for Paul, but being a noble sort, she wants to do the right thing and find a way to restore Paul's wife to a normal state. Medicine holds no answers, and at the urging of a maid (Teresa Harris), Betsy even takes Jessica to a voodoo ceremony.
Betsy's voiceover thankfully explains and dismisses the title immediately, and the film itself is really quite beautiful, in its chilling way. The set design, the constantly beating drums, and the native music all combine to create a unique atmosphere. A calypso singer (Sir Lancelot) who is determined to give Betsy some of Paul's family history via his song lyrics is particularly effective. The film also manages to scare the audience half to death, most notably during a late-night walk through the cane fields, without a drop of blood or single bit of gore.
Dee is particularly outstanding, by turns sympathetic, loving, curious, and nervy. At times she made me think of Nancy Drew as she bravely explored the island by night with her flashlight. Dee's Betsy is a bright girl eager for new experiences; the latter seems to overcome the former when it comes to checking out the local voodoo scene, which at least makes her gullibility in that regard somewhat believable, along with her desperate desire to cure her patient. Betsy also does a fine job managing Paul's alcoholic brother Wesley (James Ellison) and their kind but odd mother (Edith Barrett).
I did a little skipping forward with my remote during the voodoo moments, as those scenes weren't something I enjoyed or was comfortable with, but they were very brief; indeed, the film itself is a fast-paced 69 minutes so it doesn't dwell on anything for very long. At times I would have liked a bit more back story or explanation, and yet at the same time, the fact that not every aspect of the characters' histories is spelled out added to the film's mysterious feel.
The film's lead performances, overall style, and classic story underpinnings, with the tormented owner of the estate and the mad wife wailing in the tower, made it very much worth checking out. The ending is both disturbing and poetic.
Jacques Tourneur would later direct Frances Dee's husband, Joel McCrea, in the classic Americana STARS IN MY CROWN (1950), as well as in the Westerns STRANGER ON HORSEBACK (1955) and WICHITA (1955).
The supporting cast includes James Bell, Jeni LeGon, and Vivian Dandridge.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is available on DVD as part of a Val Lewton Double Feature, teamed with THE BODY SNATCHER (1945). It can also be purchased as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection. The DVD can be rented from Netflix. Extras include a commentary track.
The trailer is available at the Turner Classic Movies site.