I Walked with a Zombie

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I Walked with a Zombie
Iwalkedwithazombie.jpg
theatrical poster
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Produced by Val Lewton
Written by Curt Siodmak
Ardel Wray
Based on I Walked with a Zombie 
by Inez Wallace
Starring James Ellison
Frances Dee
Tom Conway
Narrated by Frances Dee
Music by Roy Webb
Cinematography J. Roy Hunt
Edited by Mark Robson
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • March 17, 1943 (1943-03-17)
Running time 69 minutes
Country United States
Language English

I Walked with a Zombie is a 1943 horror film directed by Jacques Tourneur. It was the second horror film from producer Val Lewton for RKO Pictures.

Plot[edit]

Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse, relates in a voiceover how she once "walked with a zombie."

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 inhabited by a small white community and descendants of African slaves. Betsy is told the story of how 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.

That night at dinner, Betsy meets Paul's half-brother and employee, Wesley Rand (James Ellison). 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 the rest of the household. 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, 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 treatment of insulin shock 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 the towering figure of the eerie Carre-Four (a reference to the loa Maitre Carrefours[citation needed]) 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 summoned inside, where she is shocked to find that the priest is none other than Mrs. Rand. Mrs. Rand explains that she uses Voodoo to convince the natives to accept conventional medical practices and tells Betsy that Jessica can never be cured.

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 back to the house, but 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, as he is fearful of demeaning and abusing her as he did Jessica. She is convinced that he is not really like that.

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, 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 from her zombie state. He asks Betsy if she would consider euthanasia, but she refuses.

Using an effigy of Jessica, the Sabreur takes control of her and draws her to him. Paul and Betsy stop her the first time, 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. Paul comforts Betsy.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

Producer Val Lewton was forced to use the film's title by RKO executives. Officially, the film was based on an article written by Inez Wallace for American Weekly Magazine.[1] Lewton asked his writers to use Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre for giving the story a narrative structure and to do research on Haitian voodoo practices.[2][3]

Anna Lee was originally slated for the Frances Dee role, but had to bow out due to another commitment.[4]

Reception[edit]

While I Walked with a Zombie was declared to be "a dull, disgusting exaggeration of an unhealthy, abnormal concept of life" by The New York Times in 1943,[5] critics later called it "intelligent" (William K. Everson),[6] "exceptional" (Leonard Maltin)[7] and "the most elegant" in Lewton's RKO horror series (Tom Milne).[8]

The film's treatment of the supernatural element repeatedly attracted interest among reviewers:

  • "As with all of Val Lewton’s films, I Walked with a Zombie hovers on the deliberate edge of ambiguity between whether the explanation for events is mundane or supernatural. [...] The central belief/doubt ambiguity of the film hovers around the question of whether Jessica is suffering from tropical fever or has been affected by voodoo. The film sits just between rationalism and superstition – its duality plays on the conflict between Western Christendom and Caribbean culture, and between medicine and magic." – Richard Scheib[9]
  • "In [I Walked with a Zombie] belief in the supernatural is but one of many faults in the human character. The script never confirms the reality of Voodoo even when it is clear that the Voodoo masters are controlling the zombie Carre-Four. It's worth noting that Wesley 'falls under the voodoo spell' only after despairing of the hopeless state of affairs at the Hammond house, and sinking into a deep depression. [...] Lewton's theme is that human nature creates Evil -- that unresolved guilt and suspicions from the past dominate the Hammond family's present. Better natures are stifled, starting a chain of human misery that leads to tragedy. The result -- wasted lives and blighted vitality -- is as pervasive as the creeping Voodoo beliefs themselves. " – Glenn Erickson[10]

In 2007, Stylus Magazine named it the fifth best zombie movie of all time.[11]

In popular culture[edit]

Books[edit]

  • This film was referenced in the novel Kiss of the Spider Woman by Argentine novelist Manuel Puig. In the book, two inmates pass the time by discussing the films one of them has seen. Though I Walked With A Zombie is not specifically mentioned, it is hinted at, as is Cat People, a previous Lewton-Tourneur film.
  • The film is also referenced in Thomas Pynchon's novel "Inherent Vice."

Music[edit]

  • Wednesday 13's album Transylvania 90210: Songs of Death, Dying, and the Dead (2005) contains the track I Walked With A Zombie, inspired by this film.
  • Dance collective Transglobal Underground sampled some of the voodoo chanting from the soundtrack of I Walked with a Zombie for the track Zombie'ites from their 1993 album Dream of 100 Nations.

Television[edit]

  • In the season 1 episode of Pretty Little Liars, 'Please, Do Talk About Me When I'm Gone', the characters of Emily and Maya go to see the film and shots from the film are used in the episode

Film[edit]

  • Pedro Costa has suggested his 1994 film Casa de Lava was something of a remake of I Walked With a Zombie. It tells the story of a nurse (Inês de Medeiros) returning a comatose patient (Isaach De Bankolé) back to his homeland of Cape Verde.
  • Ritual is an authorized remake of I Walked With a Zombie, coproduced by RKO.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Wallace, Inez. "I Walked with a Zombie." Reprinted in Peter Haining, Zombie! Stories of the Walking Dead (London 1986): pp.95- 102.
  2. ^ Focusfeatures.com
  3. ^ TCM.com
  4. ^ Hanson, Patricia K.; Dunkleberger, Amy (1999). AFI: American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States : Feature Films 1941-1950 Indexes, Volume 2. University of California Press. p. 1127. ISBN 0520215214. "According to a 21 Oct 1942 HR news item, Anna Lee was initially slated to play 'Betsy,' but was forced to withdraw because of a previous commitment." 
  5. ^ Review in The New York Times, April 22, 1943
  6. ^ William K. Everson: Classics of the Horror Film. The Citadel Press, 1974.
  7. ^ Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide. Signet/Penguin Group, 2007.
  8. ^ Time Out Film Guide, Seventh Edition 1999. Penguin Group, 1998.
  9. ^ Richard Scheib: I Walked with a Zombie review on Moria - The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review.
  10. ^ Glenn Erickson: The Val Lewton Collection review on DVD Savant.
  11. ^ Stylus Magazine’s Top 10 Zombie Films of All Time - Movie Review - Stylus Magazine

External links[edit]