I Walked with a Zombie in particular is still considered a horror classic, influencing all manner of good and bad Zombie flicks all across the board (many... actually, most... of which have been reviewed on this site). Let me tell you, I Walked with a Zombie still packs a scary punch, granting us actual VOODOO Zombies (not the risen, rotting dead) and an almost scientific and believable fright-fest.
However, I Walked with a Zombie most certainly shows its age, and in more ways than one. Certainly the acting and directing styles of the day were different, and the voices and mannerisms of the characters are branded with the early talkie affectations that we wouldn't hear today. Sure special effects, filming and editing have changed (for better or worse) since 1943, and naturally, this is a black and white, sometimes shaky picture. But all of that works when watching a classic horror film like this. What doesn't work is the unintentional, yet undeniable racism. Oh, it's not really thick, and this is no Birth of a Nation, but I can certainly see how the impression could be gleaned that "Well, that's how black people are." Even the sympathetic characters cause the modern eyebrow to raise up and arch. When our leading lady Nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) arrives at her new island home, she is detailed the story of how the Holland family had brought the African Slaves to this land long ago. After hearing this sad tale the bright eyed, bushy tailed, eager, innocent and completely oblivious Betsy replies "Well they certainly brought you to a beautiful place!"
Argh... my white male liberal guilt just floored me there. Ouch! Could we get a little LESS Politically Correct, please? Maybe right then those animated California Raisins could pop up and do a little dance, then Amos and Andy and Al Jolson (in "Black Face") could slowly dance in behind them, followed by Rochester van Jones and Eddie, the Chauffeur who can jump out just in time to scream "MIS-TER TOP-PERRRRRR!!!" at a passing Zombie before falling into the swamp!!!
Ow, this White guilt... Argh! I gotta walk this off!
Okay... it's still here. Damn... okay, moving on.
I Walked with a Zombie is the tale of a young Nurse (Dee's Betsy Connell) who is given the enviable job of caring for an ill woman at a paradise-like plantation somewhere in the West Indies! Not that I should complain, living in Orange County, California, but still! Anyway, Betsy's charge Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) is, to all appearances, a beautiful young woman. However, what she really is will frighten Betsy and those surrounding her until their deaths. Jessica doesn't blink or speak, she floats through life, obeying simple commands and seems controlled by outside forces. Worse, Jessica is not merely devoid of joy, fulfillment or meaning, she also... doesn't bleed when cut.
Naturally, this is darned peculiar to Nurse Betsy. Maybe she skipped the class on "Caring for the Undead" at the NLU Nursing School.
It's Jessica's husband Paul Holland (Tom Conway) who has summoned, and is paying Betsy, hoping to bring his wife back to her full, lively, if incredibly bitchy, self. One problem, one little broken wishbone in the trachea of his plan is that Paul and Betsy soon start to fall in love. This is much to the chagrin of Paul's half brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) who takes more than a little interest in Betsy (and, in truth, the mysteries of the island) on his own.
The story is Betsy's however, and her quest to help and cure her patient (eventually, and strangely, as a selfless valentine to Paul) begins to consume her life. In her eagerness to do this, she even submits to Voodoo and Obeah rituals to learn what sort of witch doctor remedies the "natives" might hold for Jessica's condition. I Walked with a Zombie is at its best when exploring some of the best and creepiest Voodoo mysteries suggested by its source material. Inez Wallace's article "I Walked with a Zombie" was practically the The Serpent and the Rainbow of its time, and director Jacques Tourneur and writers Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray offer up a number of interesting and frightening ritualistic secrets to keep the modern mind interested, just as the viewer of the day might have been completely terrified. Even though at times these creepy curses are laid at the feet of "the natives" (folks, displaced African slaves aren't "native" to the island of Saint Sebastian), when treated respectfully and neutrally, the scenes can be very chilling and most interesting! This is particularly seen in the gripping and scary Set Decoration of Al Fields and Darrell Silvera and the Art Direction by Albert S. D'Agostino and Walter E. Keller. This is realistic and scary horror to be sure.
However, producer Val Lewton was, at this time, RKO's Ace in the Hole, the sure-fire go to guy who could make low-budget flicks that would turn more profit than a bail of hemp at a college campus. He wasn't about to risk all that on an article about Stiffs in Paradise... so he kept the I Walked with a Zombie title and aspects of the tale it told, but had Wray and Siodmak wrap all that around another story... that of Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre. Now, I don't remember ol' Jane seeking advice from Witch Doctors and taking part in Obeah rituals, but then I didn't really specialize in Chick Lit in College, so hey... ah? Hey.
I Walked with a Zombie does the trick where it counts, offering up psychological chills and nightmarish thrills throughout its light-and-shadow play. This isn't a perfect film, as noted, and those looking for a pure fright fest with blood and startling freakiness should apply somewhere besides at the doorstep of this drama. Fans of Classic Horror, those interested in true Voodoo-inspired Zombies and even those who just want to check out where some of the underlying themes of their favorite Zombie flicks came from should check out I Walked with a Zombie sooner than later.
I Walked with a Zombie was somewhat unsuccessfully remade as Tales from the Crypt presents: Ritual. While some of the subtlety and mysterious, shadowy creepiness may not have succeeded in that remake, fans of I Walked with a Zombie should check it out. It might not be quite as good, but I Walked with a Zombie doesn't have nudity. Three and One Half Stars out of Five for I Walked with a Zombie, the dated, vaguely racist horror drama that inspired a whole hoard of horrific flicks of the same (yet evolving) ilk. Man, I tell you... the eyes on that one Zombie... I'll be having nightmares for weeks, dudes. Guilty nightmares. See you in the Next Reel.
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