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I Walked with a Zombie

Ring a Ding Ding

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

     Sometimes the best films result from the most undesirable circumstances. One could say this is true of Alfred Hitchcock‘s many films that were created under the restrictions of a tight Production Code and producer oversight. That can also be said of I Walked with a Zombie. Director Jacques Tourneur and Producer Val Lewton had this title forced on them and had it poorly supported with a low budget and tight filming schedule. Somehow, the men created a fantastic and unique thriller.

     The term “unique” can not often be used to refer to a movie about a “zombie”, yet the word works for I Walked with a Zombie because this fantastic half-alive, half-dead creature is not how we normally conceive it. Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) finds herself whisked away to the Caribbean Isle of St. Sebastian where she will fill a job as personal nurse. Before she even meets her patient, Betsy is startled in the night by some crying. As she seeks to find the source, she ends up climbing the winding stairs of an abandoned stone tower and is followed by a strange woman in white. When this woman draws near, Betsy screams and is rescued by her boss, Paul Holland (Tom Conway). This eerie female is her patient, Mrs. Holland (Christine Gordon), only the nurse had not realized she was a “mental case.” You see, Mrs. Holland is a “zombie” as the doctor says. She had a tropical fever that burned away her brain stem and she now can do nothing more than obey basic commands and otherwise exists without any life behind her eyes.
     There is some native intrigue surrounding Mrs. Holland and the events leading up to her mental state that involves her husband’s half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison). Both this man and the husband seem to be putting the moves on the young, new nurse but she ends up inexplicably falling for Paul so severely that she wants to cure his wife to make him happy. Betsy has been learning about voodoo from the house staff and the town doctor, who happens to be Paul and Wesley’s mother (Edith Barrett). When she gets the notion that this alternative medicine might be able to cure Mrs. Holland, she leads the woman on a frightening journey to the “home fort” of these people. The circumstances of Mrs. Holland’s ailment become more and more bizarre as we start to question whether or not she actually died during her illness and was reanimated.
     One will likely never see a movie depict a zombie as beautifully as I Walked with a Zombie. Although Gordon utters not a word nor looks anyone in the eye, her face and hair are beautifully set and her willowy pale gowns flutter in the wind as she wanders about. Just because the film’s intended “monster” is not frightening, however, does not mean it is free of freaky faces. A voodoo man who guards the road leading to the home fort is used to his cinematic best. He is incredibly tall with bulging eyes and he, too, says not a thing.

Which would you say is a zombie?

     I Walked with a Zombie was meant as a B horror movie, but after Lewton’s success with Cat People, this picture was sent to theaters under the price arrangement of an A film. I think, however, that this flick stands miles above the bizarrely conceived story of a woman who might be a wild cat and is bolstered by a stronger cast. Dee is fantastic in conveying both beauty and strength as someone out of her element physically, professionally and philosophically. She really shines above her costars who do not do a bad job: Conway as a George Sanders knock off and Ellison as an angst-filled drunkard. Barrett offers a fine performances but she is cast in one of those roles that has the mother looking only a few years older than her offspring and is in fact three years younger than Conway.

Source: Turner Classic Movies

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