I Walked with a Zombie (1943)


(director: Jacques Tourneur; screenwriters: Curt Siodmak/Ardel Wray/from story by Inez Wallace; cinematographer: Roy Hunt; editor: Mark Robson; cast: James Ellison (Wesley Rand), Frances Dee (Betsy Connell), Tom Conway (Paul Holland), Edith Barrett (Mrs. Rand), Theresa Harria (Alma), James Bell (Dr. Maxwell), Sir Lancelot (Calypso Singer), Richard Abrams (Clement), Darby Jones (Carre-Four), Clinton Rosemond (Coachman), Christine Gordon (Jessica Holland); Runtime: 69; RKO; 1943)

“Tourneau’s direction is both incredible and magical.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jacques Tourneur (The Cat People/The Leopard Man) based this studio-made RKO film for Val Lewton on a magazine article of Inez Wallace’s, but added the Jane Eyre story line onto this tale of voodoo magic in the West Indies. He has come up with a possible masterpiece, arguably his best film, that poetically overcomes a questionable B-movie plot.

It is a snowy day in Canada when the young and eager nurse, Betsy Connell (Dee), accepts a job to care for the comatose wife of a sugar planter on a sunny Caribbean island called St. Sebastian. On the ocean voyage over to the Caribbean island, she converses with the embittered sugar planter who employed her, Paul Holland (Conway), who warns that what she takes for beautiful is underscored by death. He points out as an example the jumping fish she is admiring for their beauty, are only jumping in fear of being eaten by the bigger fish. In the background, the black crew are chanting the mournful tune ‘O Marie Congo.’

On the island a black coachman (Clinton) fills her in on the island’s slave history, of how they were brought to the islands in chains on the boat with the figure of St. Sebastian on its front (now part of Paul’s home).

Betsy, upon reaching her destination, meets the half-brother of Paul, Wesley Rand (James Ellison), who has a drinking problem and has lost interest in his work at the sugar mill. Wesley speaks despairingly of Paul, warning that he is a man of beautiful words but is capable of harming her like he did his wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon). He leaves for work at the sound of the eerie throbbing of the jungle drums, which is played to announce that the sugar syrup is ready to be poured.

At night Betsy hears the cries of a woman, thinking that it is her patient Jessica. In the darkness of the sleeping area, she finds her sleepwalking in a trance-like state. Paul rushes in upon hearing the nurse’s shrieks. The servants say the cries are from the black maid Alma (Harria), who is taking care of a new born child. The maid further says that the custom on the island is for people to cry at a birth because in the days of slavery, babies were born into a life of misery. The reverse is also true, that death will bring on sounds of rejoice because death signifies freedom.

Betsy confers with Dr. Maxwell (James Bell) who believes Jessica suffers from tropical fever, which has incapacitated her spinal cord, leaving her with no will power and unable to speak. She can only obey simple commands, and is like a zombie (a living ghost). Dr. Maxwell recommends the nurse restrict her to a light diet and some exercise.

While at an outdoor restaurant drinking and conversing with Wesley, Betsy hears in the street the calypso song sung by Sir Lancelot, which tells of her employer’s family history, which is entitled “Shame and Scandal in the Family,” of how Wesley tried to steal Paul’s wife and brought dishonor to the family. It is interesting to note, how this 1940s film had a tolerant and respectful attitude to blacks, and even allowed them to be critical of upper-class whites without being rebuffed for it.

Betsy meets the mother of the family (Edith Barrett), who is pleased with Betsy’s concern for Jessica. Betsy tells the nurse to have Paul remove the whiskey from the dining table, that she is worried about Wesley’s growing alcoholism. The mother also recognizes that Paul and Betsy have an attraction for each other and that she can influence the master of the house (he is her first son, his deceased father was the plantation owner) to remove this traditionally placed decanter from the family table.

Betsy decides, after she is sure that she has fallen in love with Paul, that Jessica must be treated with the only known cure Dr. Maxwell can suggest for her, insulin shock therapy, which could also result in her death. Her purpose is two-fold: one to help the patient who seems dead already; the other to resolve the situation with Paul, so that if Jessica is cured Paul will have his wife back; but if she dies, she can now go out with Paul.

Dr. Maxwell’s treatment, when tried, doesn’t work.

Alma now says that only the voodoo doctors at Houmfort can cure her, as the native locals are concerned with the bad feelings derived from having the zombie woman around and would be anxious to help. Alma carefully outlines in some flour she spills on the floor how to get there and pins on Betsy a patch needed for entry to the voodoo ceremony, so that when she reaches the crossroads the zombie guard would let her pass.

One of the greatest scenes in horror movie lore takes place, as Betsy takes the sleepwalking Jessica through the thick jungle of the sugar cane fields while the howling wind and rustling branches and sound of a conch are blown to call the faithful to the ceremony. The contrasting light and dark shadow patterns seen in the field add to the unmentionable dangers that are imagined in the frightened mind of the brave nurse, as she goes silently past the voodoo talismans and the goat carcass hanging from a tree. When reaching Carre-Four (Darby) the scary looking zombie guard lets her party go on, but mysteriously follows along. When Betsy shines her flashlight on the guard’s face after they reach the ceremonial spot at Houmfort, the voodoo drums begin and the ceremony is started and all this is so much like a dream.

The ritual voodoo ceremony is done in a deliberate and quietly dignified manner, with the result being hypnotic. The worship calls for drums and dance, but the surprise is that the high priest is Mrs. Rand. She will later on explain to Betsy that when her second husband who was a missionary passed on, in order to get the natives to take the proper medicine, she pretended that the voodoo God spoke through her. She also says that after she became bitterly disappointed that her sons were fighting over Paul’s wife, she uttered Jessica’s name in a curse and that curse stuck and Jessica has been a zombie ever since.

The obscure motives of the mother and the nurse and what role Wesley plays in all this is never cleared-up completely, but that only makes the story more intriguing. Mrs. Rand is walking in the world of both the Christian and voodoo societies and her role in this affair is speculative, even to suggest possibilities that she wanted Wesley for herself — almost like Jocasta in the Oedipal myth.

As for Paul, we can never be sure if he was the cause of Jessica turning away from him or if he was always the brooding intellectual type, even before her affair with his half-brother Wesley. We have no idea what Jessica’s role was in this indelicate affair.

The natives want the zombie dead, they feel there is enough sadness on the island as is without having this living curse among them. The shaman makes a voodoo doll in the likeness of Jessica, and they hold Wesley responsible for the curse. They stick a pin in the doll and the voodoo magic works on Wesley, as he is used to bring about the death of Paul’s wife. Wesley takes an arrow from the figure of St. Sebastian in front of their palatial home and carries Jessica in a zombie-like ritualistic trance to the ocean, where they both drown. He will now be with his loved one forever.

The film closes while focused on the arrow-pierced St. Sebastian image, the symbol of slavery for the blacks and wealth for the whites. It is the symbol of all the pain suffered by the island people. A voiceover, in a serious religious tone, declares that death has taken away the evil and implores God to bring joy to the living, with forgiveness to all.

The power of the script is in the telling of a tale about local superstition built around the moral dilemma of the Christian concept of right and wrong. By creating an unforgettable and haunting atmosphere, it blows away the less than sterling acting by the male leads. Tourneau’s direction is both incredible and magical.