I Walked with a Zombie

Released:  1943

Cast:  Frances Dee, Tom Conway, James Ellison

SUMMARY:  Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is a Canadian nurse who gets a job working for a sugar plantation owner on Saint Sebastian, an island in the Caribbean.  The plantation is owned by the Holland family, and run by Paul Holland (Tom Conway).  Paul’s younger half-brother Wesley (James Ellison) also works on the plantation, and their mother Mrs. Rand lives there as well.  Though she is not a doctor, Mrs. Rand provides medical care for many of the poor inhabitants of the island.  Most of these are black people who are descendants of slaves, which the Hollands brought to the island.  In fact, the Hollands have a statue in their front yard that was once the figurehead of a slave ship.  Betsy meets Paul on the trip to the island, and he tells her that the plantation is a very sad place, where everything good dies.  When they arrive, Betsy does not immediately meet her patient, Paul’s wife Jessica.  That night, she hears a woman crying.  Betsy follows the noise to a tower, where she knows Jessica stays.  Inside the tower, she is approached by a pale, gaunt woman in a white dress.  The woman stares aimlessly, and keeps following Betsy around the tower until she screams.  This wakes up Paul and Wesley, who run into take charge of the situation.  Later, the doctor tells Betsy that Jessica had previously contracted a terrible tropical fever that caused permanent damage to her spinal cord.  While she is alive, she doesn’t have the willpower (or seemingly the mental capacity) to do anything for herself.

On Betsy’s first day off, she goes into the small town on the island.  She hears a local musician sing a song about the Holland family, that mentions Jessica’s desire to run away with Wesley, and Paul’s refusal to let them go.  It was after this event that Jessica caught the fever that caused her condition.  At dinner, Wesley accuses Paul of driving Jessica to insanity.  Later Paul admits to Betsy that this may be true, as he knows he is a difficult man to live with.  Despite this confession and his standoffish behavior, Betsy finds herself falling in love with Paul.  However, she knows that he feels incredibly guilty about Jessica’s condition, and would never be able to leave her, so she decides to find a cure for Jessica.  Betsy and the doctor try giving her insulin shock, in the hope of revitalizing the nerves, but this fails.  However, Betsy learns of a voodoo doctor in the village that supposedly cured a woman with a similar condition.  One evening, Betsy sneaks out of the house with Jessica and visits the houmfort (place where voodoo is practiced).  Betsy is stunned to find that the voodoo doctor is actually Mrs. Rand, who has been using the cover of voodoo to give the superstitious villagers medical advice.  She tells Betsy that Jessica cannot be cured.  However, the villagers have surrounded Jessicia, and when a sword pierces her arm but does not draw blood, they become convinced that she is a zombie.  They want to keep her at the houmfort to perform rituals, but she has returned to the plantation house.  The locals begin trying to summon Jessica with a voodoo doll, but Paul refuses to open the gates and let Jessica out.  Unable to watch her suffering, Wesley secretly opens the gate and lets Jessica out, then grabs and old arrow and follows her.  As the villagers stab the voodoo doll with a pin, Wesley kills Jessica, then walks into the ocean with her body until he drowns.

MY TAKE:  This movie was produced by Val Lewton, who became known for his low-budget horror movies made for RKO.  These included Cat People and The Seventh Victim, which have already been reviewed.  All three of these films feature supernatural phenomena.  Probably because of their small budget, all of the films use suspense and implications to create horror, rather than flashy special effects.  In Cat People, you don’t actually see the woman in cat form.  In this one and in Victim, the victim suffers more from mental issues than from physical ones.  Jessica is referred to as “living dead”, as she is technically still alive but has no response to her surroundings.  She does not have the zombie staples of decaying flesh, ragged clothes and a shuffling walk, which makes things a little more believable.  I have to say that I did not anticipate that Mrs. Rand was the voodoo doctor, and I suspected her of something really, really sinister for a few minutes.  Ultimately she reveals that she’s not actually a voodoo doctor, but that she did somehow manage to put a curse on Jessica for breaking apart the family.  I was impressed by the houmfort scene, when the Sabreur is doing his dance, and later when he’s calling Jessica out of the house.  It managed to look fairly realistic, instead of hokey.  The ending was a little disappointing, as I wanted a big showdown, but I did like this movie better than the other two Lewton movies on the list.  It was also interesting to see Tom Conway to play a good guy.

Fun fact:  Frances Dee was married for 57 years to Joel McCrea, who starred in Sullivan’s Travels, among many other movies.

RATING:  Okay.


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