I Walked with a Zombie
I Walked with a Zombie is a 1943 American horror film directed by Jacques Tourneur, and starring James Ellison, Frances Dee, and Tom Conway. Its plot follows a nurse who travels to care for the ailing wife of a sugar plantation owner in the Caribbean, where she encounters supernatural phenomena such as voodoo and the walking dead. The screenplay is based on an article of the same name by Inez Wallace, and also partly reinterprets the narrative of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. It was the second horror film from producer Val Lewton for RKO Pictures.
|I Walked with a Zombie|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Jacques Tourneur|
|Produced by||Val Lewton|
|Based on||I Walked with a Zombie|
by Inez Wallace
|Narrated by||Frances Dee|
|Music by||Roy Webb|
|Cinematography||J. Roy Hunt|
|Edited by||Mark Robson|
|Distributed by||RKO Radio Pictures|
Betsy is hired to care for the wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway), a sugar plantation owner on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. Saint Sebastian is home to a small white community and descendants of African slaves. On the way to the plantation, the black driver tells Betsy that the Hollands brought slaves to the island, and that the statue of "Ti-Misery" (Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows) in the courtyard is the figurehead from a slave ship.
At dinner, Betsy meets Paul's half-brother and employee, Wesley Rand (James Ellison), who clearly resents Paul. While getting ready for bed, Betsy hears crying. When she investigates, a woman in a white robe walks towards her, her eyes staring. Betsy screams, waking everyone. Paul takes charge of Jessica Holland, the woman Betsy is to care for. The next morning, Dr. Maxwell tells Betsy that Jessica's spinal cord was irreparably damaged by a serious illness, leaving her totally without the willpower to do anything for herself.
On her day off, Betsy encounters Wesley in town. While he drinks himself into a stupor, a calypso singer (Sir Lancelot) sings about how Jessica was going to run away with Wesley, but Paul would not let them go. Then she was struck down by the fever. Betsy meets Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), Paul and Wesley's doctor mother.
That night, at dinner, Paul tries to persuade Wesley to reduce his drinking (at Betsy's suggestion), but he accuses Paul of trying to impress Betsy and of driving Jessica insane in the first place.
Later, Betsy is drawn to the sound of Paul playing the piano. He apologizes for bringing her to the island and admits that he may have been the cause of his wife's condition. Betsy has been falling in love with her moody employer. She determines to make him happy by curing Jessica.
Betsy gets Paul to agree to try a potentially fatal insulin shock treatment on Jessica, but it has no effect. Housemaid Alma (Theresa Harris) then tells her that a voodoo priest cured a woman of a similar condition. Betsy takes her patient without permission through cane fields past a crossroads guarded by an eerie Carre-Four (a reference to the loa Maitre Carrefours) to the houmfort (a place where voodoo worshipers gather).
There, they watch a man (the Sabreur) wield a saber during a ritual. People are given advice through a shack door by a voodoo priest. Betsy is shocked to find that the priest is Mrs. Rand. Mrs. Rand explains that she uses voodoo to convince the natives to accept conventional medical practices and tells Betsy that Jessica is incurable. Outside, the locals stab Jessica in the arm with the sword as a test. When she does not bleed, they are convinced she is a zombie.
Betsy takes her home. Paul is furious, but is moved when he realizes that Betsy was trying to cure Jessica. The local authorities investigate the next day, and the natives demand that Jessica be returned to them for "ritual tests". Later, Carre-Four approaches the residence, but Mrs. Rand orders him to leave.
Paul suggests that Betsy return to Canada, regretting entangling her in his family problems and fearful of demeaning and abusing her as he did Jessica. Betsy reluctantly agrees.
The next day, Doctor Maxwell reports that the unrest has sparked an official inquiry into Jessica's illness. Mrs. Rand shocks everyone by claiming that Jessica is a zombie. Although she had never taken voodoo seriously before, Mrs Rand reveals that when she discovered that Jessica was planning to run away with Wesley and break up her family, she felt herself possessed by a voodoo god. She then put a curse on Jessica. Paul, Maxwell and Betsy dismiss her story, but Wesley becomes obsessed with freeing Jessica. He asks Betsy if she would consider euthanasia, but she refuses.
Using an effigy of Jessica, the Sabreur draws her to him from afar. Paul and Betsy stop her, but they are not around when he tries again. Wesley opens the gate, letting Jessica out. Then he pulls an arrow out of the statue of Ti-Misery and follows. As the Sabreur stabs the doll with a pin, Wesley thrusts the arrow into Jessica. He then carries her body into the sea, pursued slowly by Carre-Four. Later, the natives discover the bodies of Jessica and Wesley floating in the surf.
- Frances Dee as Betsy Connell
- Tom Conway as Paul Holland
- James Ellison as Wesley Rand
- Edith Barrett as Mrs. Rand
- James Bell as Dr. Maxwell
- Christine Gordon as Jessica Holland
- Theresa Harris as Alma
- Sir Lancelot as Calypso Singer
- Darby Jones as Carrefour
- Jeni Le Gon as Dancer
- Rita Christiani as a friend of Melise (uncredited)
Producer Val Lewton was obligated to use the film's title by RKO executives, which they had culled from an article of the same name written by Inez Wallace for American Weekly Magazine. Wallace's article detailed her own experience meeting "zombies" — not the literal living dead, but rather people she had encountered working on a plantation in Haiti whose vocal chords and cognitive abilities had been impaired by drug use, rendering them obedient servants who understood and followed simple orders.
In devising the screenplay, Lewton asked his writers to use Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre as a model for its narrative structure, and to undertake research on Haitian voodoo practices. Lewton purportedly proclaimed that he wanted to make a "West Indian version of Jane Eyre." Screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray were appointed to write the script; Siodmak's original draft revolved around the wife of a plantation owner who is made into a zombie to prevent her from leaving to Paris, but the screenplay underwent significant revisions by Wray and Lewton.
Principal photography for I Walked with a Zombie began October 26, 1942. Wray described the film as being shot on a "shoestring budget." Shooting was completed less than one month later on November 19.
I Walked with a Zombie had its theatrical premiere in Cleveland, Ohio in April 1943, the hometown of the source material's author, Inez Wallace. It opened in New York City on April 21, 1943, before expanding wide on April 30. It continued to screen in North American theaters throughout the year, with screenings beginning as late as December 19, 1943 in Casper, Wyoming.
The film was re-released in the United States through RKO in 1956, opening in Los Angeles in July of that year. It continued to screen throughout the country during the fall of 1956, into late December.
Initial reception for I Walked with a Zombie was mixed. The New York Times was critical of the film, calling it " a dull, disgusting exaggeration of an unhealthy, abnormal concept of life". Wanda Hale of the New York Daily News praised it as a "spine-chilling horror film," awarding it two-and-a-half out of three stars. A critic of The Boston Globe felt the film "gets nowhere in the telling and finishes its overdone melodramatics with a most unconvincing climax."
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, I Walked with a Zombie holds an approval rating of 92%, based on 26 reviews, and an average rating of 8.1/10. It's consensus reads, "Evocative direction by Jacques Tourneur collides with the low-rent production values of exploitateer Val Lewton in I Walked with a Zombie, a sultry sleeper that's simultaneously smarmy, eloquent and fascinating."
Author and film critic Leonard Maltin rated the film three and a half out of four stars, praising the film's atmosphere and story, calling it "[an] Exceptional Val Lewton chiller". Dennis Schwartz of Ozus' World Movie Reviews awarded the film a grade A, praising the film's atmosphere, Tourneur's direction, and story. TV Guide awarded the film their highest rating of 5/5 stars, calling it "an unqualified horror masterpiece". Alan Jones from Radio Times gave the film four out of five stars, writing, "Jacques Tourneur's direction creates palpable fear and tension in a typically low-key nightmare from the Lewton fright factory. The lighting, shadows, exotic setting and music all contribute to the immensely disturbing atmosphere, making this stunning piece of poetic horror a classic of the genre."
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (November 2018)
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- Stylus Magazine’s Top 10 Zombie Films of All Time - Movie Review - Stylus Magazine
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- Fujiwara, Chris (2015) . Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6561-1.
- Hanson, Patricia K.; Dunkleberger, Amy (1999). AFI: American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States : Feature Films 1941-1950 Indexes. 2. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. ISBN 0520215214.
- Wallace, Inez (1986). "I Walked with a Zombie". In Haining, Peter (ed.). Zombie! Stories of the Walking Dead. London: W.H. Allen. ISBN 978-0-426-20161-8.
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