I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Strangely, despite the fact that Val Lewton seemed to have a tendency to avoid the rather silly, exploitative titles that RKO would give him when actually producing the films they were to name, this line is actually in the movie. It feels just slightly uncomfortable, but, as usual, Lewton and cohorts have put together a phenomenal cast for a low budget film clocking in under 75 minutes and based around a pre-determined title only.

Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) tells us she once "walked with a zombie," and then tells us the story of how this came to be. She's hired to take care of Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), the catatonic wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway), who owns a sugar plantation in the Caribbean, on the island of Saint Sebastian, and hears her patient described as a "zombie," a term for which she requires explanation. As the story continues, she develops affections for the seeming widower Paul and tries to bring him what she thinks he wants–his beloved wife. All the while, Paul's half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) is the somewhat more belligerent foreigner on the island, conflicting with his brother and some of the locals, while mother to both Paul and Wesley, Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), tries to maintain the family and its peace.

The most shocking thing about this movie are not the (theoretical) zombies (of which there are two), nor the fact that they are (allegedly) zombies in the voodoo sense. The most shocking thing is that the film treats voodoo with an unbelievable amount of sympathy, and more importantly, accuracy. I was quite surprised to hear the term "houngan" in a film that is 65 years old as of this year, and to see the practitioners shown in a light that doesn't really imply they are even foolish, let alone evil. Certainly, characters will say these things–but the duplicitous nature of most of them as regards that religion shows that even there there's some question as to the force behind the claim. Often they call it foolish, but in secret believe in it in at least some minor fashion. And that's the real idea here, as usual the supernatural taking a backseat to the drama and interaction of humanity in a Val Lewton horror production. Here instead the problem is that of how people can harm each other, and the worry and psychosomatic effects of these harms–the danger someone can pose unintentionally or when their words or actions affect someone in a way more physiological than one might expect, and on the ethereal nature of questions of belief–how much a stretch is it for Jessica to be an actual zombie? Is it a stretch? The circumstances seem appropriate, and her response (or lack thereof) is symptomatically accurate, but of course, who would believe that? Apparently more than you might expect.

Once again, a solid turn from Val Lewton's horror productions for RKO, and a great set of direction from Jacques Tourneur, one of his most consistent partners in the business. A nicely believable atmosphere and set design for the island, some rather creepy staring eyes on voodoo "zombie" Carre-Four (Darby Jones), and a lovely dark set of cinematography to complement the murky tone of the film.

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