Title: I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cast: Frances Dee, Edith Barrett, Tom Conway, James Ellison
As I work my way through all these old zombie movies I realize just how similar they all are. In my review for King of the Zombies (1941) I mentioned how similar it was to White Zombie (1931), but here I am again to tell you that I Walked With a Zombie is yet another film that shares an alarming amount of similarities with Bela Lugosi’s film. They all share similar scenes, situations, premises and characters. Again, we have a Voodoo Island, we get to hear drums in the jungle, we get the black slaves, the zombie bride, the sugar mill…but I will say this, I Walked With A Zombie is superior to all of these movies I’ve mentioned because it benefits from something that none of the others films had: producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. The involvement of these two talented individuals is what makes I Walked With A Zombie one of the classiest zombie movies ever made, I know that sounds like a contradiction of sorts because who’d think a zombie movie could be classy right?
In I Walked With A Zombie we meet a nurse named Betsy who has just accepted a job in the West Indies as a nurse taking care of the sick wife of a rich land owner named Paul Holland. What ailment has stricken Mr. Holland’s wife? No one really knows, some think she’s affected by some sort of fever, others think she has a mental disorder, but if you ask the slaves they’ll tell you she’s been zombified! Who knows the truth of what really happened to Mrs. Holland?
Director Jacques Tourneur was a master in creating atmosphere in his films, I remember noting this when I first saw Night of theDemon (1957). There’s moments on that one that are genuinely creep where the supernatural seems almost like a real thing. Tourneur was a director that knew how important shadows are, the importance of having the wind blow against the leaves of a tree, the sound the wind makes and the importance of those eerie moments of silence. I Walked With a Zombie has many moments such as these and though the film plays with themes and premises I’d seen before in similar films, what set this one apart is the quality of the production, the performances, the cinematography; all these elements where top notch on I Walked With A Zombie in contrast to films like King of the Zombies and White Zombie, which can sometimes seem cheap and show their budgetary limitations. I Walked With A Zombie does not suffer from these problems, this is a top notch production, or at least it felt that way!
A thing or two can be said about the titular zombie on this film, which is without a doubt in my mind the most beautiful zombie in all of zombie zinema. I mean I’ve seen sexy zombies, I’ve seen gross out zombies, I’ve seen many a walking bag of puss, but I’d never seen me a more beautiful zombie then the one depicted on this film. Edith Barret played the zombified bride, she doesn’t speak a word throughout the entire film, but she looks hauntingly beautiful. I love the way she looked as she walked in her white dress, the wind blowing on it…she has a haunting almost ghost-like quality to her. Tourneur really made an effort to make her feel as if she was a shell of a human being, an empty vessel.
Same as with Night of the Demon and Cat People (1942) (another awesome Jacques Tourneur film) for a huge chunk of the film, we are never really sure if the supernatural elements are real or not. I’ve always enjoyed that about Tourneur’s films; he always questions religion and the supernatural. Even if in the film eventually the supernatural ends up being real, for most of the film the existence of the supernatural and its validity in the real world is always put in question and explored. In Night of the Demon the main character is an incurable skeptic, a guy who only believes in reason and reality, the same happens in I Walked With A Zombie. Characters are always questioning Voodoo. Is it real? Should we be afraid of it? Is it real only in the mind of the people who believe in it? I love the fact that a film from the 40’s explored these themes with such honesty, this is a recurring thing in Tourneur’s films.
But in the end, even though this is a film that puts belief systems in question, the film doesn’t forget that what we want is to be spooked, and that it does well. There’s this amazing sequence where Betsy goes walking with the zombie girl and she immerses herself, slowly but surely, in the world of Voodoo. Great sequence, the imagery there is unforgettable for me, the mood, the ambiance, undisputed; Tourneur really was a master creating truly eerie moments. So in conclusion, this one is a real find. I Walked With A Zombie is one of the best of its kind. Out of all these zombies in a voodoo island films, I’d say it can only be challenged by White Zombie which is still my favorite because it’s more of a horror film. Even though this Jacques Tourneur zombie film has its spooky moments and memorable imagery, I’d see it as more of a tragic love story then a horror film. Still, this is without a doubt, a gem of Zombie Zinema, not to be missed!
Rating: 5 out of 5