Although its title and marketing are sensationalistic, the 1943 film I Walked With A Zombie, produced by Val Newton and directed by Jacques Tournier, is a compelling narrative that offers understated mystery, intriguing characters, and a thoughtful exploration of a tropical setting.
The plot, based on a magazine article by Inez Wallace with dramatic improvements taken from Jane Eyre.Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is assigned to care for the invalid wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway), a wealthy sugar planter on the Caribbean island of St. Sebastian. When ingenue Nurse Betsy comments on the beauty of the islands, Holland has a cheerful response about destruction and decay brought about by the tropics. “Everything good dies here,” he grumbles.
True to the dynamics of Jane Eyre, Holland comes off as a prick, while his half brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), manager of the sugar refinery, seems charming and attractive. On the island, the descendants of slaves are more respectfully depicted here than in other films of the period, with a few black roles developed into actual characters – most notably Alma (Teresa Harris) , a kind servant in the Holland household who looks after Betsy. The patient, Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), isn't exactly the madwoman in the attic, but she has a building to herself, where Betsy, a doctor, and the servants attend to her. Mrs. Holland, the beautiful blond woman in white, suffered a tropical fever that badly damaged her nervous system. As Alma says, “She went mindless,” a sleepwalker who can never be awakened.
Betsy's day off with sweet Wesley complicates matters. After Wes has a few too many rums at the local cafe, he passes out – but not before a local calypso singer (played by the legendary Sir Lancelot) lets drop the truth in the lyrics to one of his songs: Before she became zombified, Jessica was about to leave Paul Holland and run off with Wesley. Betsy sees that Wes is a drunk, and learns that Jessica may have been an unfaithful wife. As the days pass, Betsy, who begins to see her boss Paul Holland as a victim and has had glimpses of his softer side, decides that she will try to help Jessica recover. When a new scientific treatment fails to restore Mrs. Holland, Betsy takes Alma's suggestion and slips away one night to take Jessica to the hounfort – he voodoo temple – to see if the houngan and mambo (priest and priestess) can cure her.
In the most effective sequence in the film, Besty leads Jessica through the cane fields at night, down a complicated network of paths, marked here and there by totems of dead animals and guarded at the crossroads by the towering, zombie sentry Carrefour (Darby Zones). Carrefour is easily the most frightening figure in the film – bony, expressionless, shambling, and dead-eyed in the best zombie tradition. At the hounfort, the houngan determines that Jessica is in fact one of the walking dead, and hence belongs with the those who practice voodoo, and not with the whites. Betsy, with the help of the mysterious Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett) is able to take Jessica back to the Holland compound. But the voodoo-people are going to want that pretty white woman back, it seems.
There's much to enjoy in I Walked With A Zombie. First and foremost, Frances Dee is appealing and engaging as the principled Betsy Connell, and her performance is controlled and pitched perfectly for the screen. Some of the other actors are a bit too polished and stagy, even for the period. As mentioned before, there's also a range of roles for black actors – not all of them stereotyped or patronizing. The film is beautifully lit in the way that only black and white films, and director Tournier makes wonderful use of foregrounding and tracking shots. Made as it was in the heyday of the Motion Picture Code, the filmmakers were limited in what they could show and what events they could relate. All in all, I Walked With a Zombie is more suspenseful than terrifying, more mysterious than shocking, but it's nevertheless engaging as a take on the voodoo-zombie world in the days before eaters of flesh.