Val Lewton’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is, despite the exploitative title, one of the most moody and atmospheric horror films of the 40’s. This was Lewton’s follow up to the highly successful CAT PEOPLE (1942), with Jacques Tourneur again in the director’s chair. Though screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray based their script on a story by Inez Wallace, producer Lewton had them add elements of Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE, making this a Gothic zombie movie!
Nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is summoned to the West Indies isle of St. Sebastian to look after Paul Holland’s (Tom Conway ) catatonic wife Jessica. The cynical Holland has an air of melancholy about him (“There’s no beauty here”, he states on the sea trip to the island, “only decay and death”). Upon arrival, Betsy meets Holland’s stepbrother Wesley Reed (James Ellison), a jovial sort until he gets in the presence of Holland. Reed runs the family sugar mill, from which eminate the almost constant “mysterious, eerie” beat of the islander’s jungle drums.
That night Betsy hearing weeping and moaning, and follows the sound to Fort Holland’s tower, where she observes Jessica, dressed in a flowing white shroud, looking like the Angel of Death herself, walking, silent, as if impelled by a force beyond her control. Servant Alma (Theresa Harris ) explains Jessica’s condition: “She was very sick, and then she went mindless”. Jessica’s doctor (James Bell) ascribes her condition to a spinal cord injury that left her with no will of her own. But the island natives have another word for Jessica… zombie!
There’s much more to the story, but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen this classic horror tale. Tourneur keeps the pace deliberately slow, layering the film with a sense of dread rather than shock after shock. The use of sound and silence, a familiar element in Lewton’s horrors, plays a large part in establishing the mood, especially during the scene with Betsy and Jessica walking through the cane fields in the eerie moonlight. DP Roy Hunt works wonders with shadows and light, Roy Webb’s score hits all the right notes, and Mark Robson’s superb editing helped him earn his spot in the director’s chair a year later with THE SEVENTH VICTIM .
The cast is a cut above your typical 40’s ‘B’ horror players. Frances Dee was a star at Paramount during the 30’s who was seriously curtailing her career at the time to raise her sons with husband Joel McCrea. Tom Conway, like his brother George Sanders, always projected a melancholy, cynical figure onscreen (and off). James Ellison never quite cracked the A-list, but was always a dependable actor. Theresa Harris shined in every role afforded to her, from BABY FACE to OUT OF THE PAST. Edith Barrett plays the pivotal part of Mrs. Rand, mother to both Conway and Ellison. Calypso singer Sir Lancelot brings his talents to the table, and Darby Jones makes a terrifying zombie.
Lancelot and Jones reprised their roles when RKO returned to Saint Sebastian for ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY , a sort-of sequel/spoof starring Bela Lugosi and the comedy team of Brown & Carney. But forget about that piece of nonsense, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is the film you want to see this Halloween season, the perfect Lewton “quiet horror” tor satisfy your taste for the macabre.