I Walked with a Zombie may be the best movie with the dumbest title in motion picture history. Cranked out by b-movie horror unit at RKO pictures in 1943, this low budget gem is far better than you might expect.
This was the second in a strong of really good low-key horror movie produced under the supervision of Val Lewton, one of filmland’s most underappreciated artists.
RKO had two rules he had to follow. One, he had to produce his films on a small budget. Two, he had to use titles the studio’s marketing department had already dreamed up and tested. The studio didn’t care about the actual plots, as long as Lewton used the titles.
So after they saddled Lewton with The Cat People and he turned that title into a really great horror movie, they gave him an even sillier title for his follow-up.
I Walked with a Zombie concerns a young nurse (Frances Dee) who arrives at a sugar plantation on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. She is to care for the invalid wife of the plantation’s owner, played by Tom Conway. The wife appears near catatonic and is given to taking silent, dreamlike walks at night. The local legend is that the wife is not sick, but actually dead and returned to life as a zombie by the island’s voodoo practitioners.
This was a time well before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, when zombies were not malevolent flesh-eaters, but merely soulless reanimated bodies who, according to legend, were employed as free labor on plantations throughout the Caribbean.
It soon becomes apparent to the young nurse that there is more to the story than she is being told, particularly as it relates to Conway, his somnambulant wife and his half-brother (James Ellison). She also finds herself falling for her employer, who is obviously still married – but is it to a sick woman or a zombie?
The film relies more on your imagination than trying to scare you with special effects. The climax of the picture takes the young nurse and the sleepwalking wife/zombie through the wilds of that island to a climactic voodoo ceremony. As with most of Lewton’s films, the viewer is left to decide for themselves whether the events are supernatural or can be explained away by more mundane coincidences.
The plot is actually cribbed from Jane Eyre, as Lewton was a fan of classical literature and longed to be making costume dramas instead of these low budget thrillers.
Lewton served as the producer and often the un-credited co-writer of his films. For directors, he gave a start to some young guns who would go on to much greater fame, including Robert Wise (West Side Story) and Mark Robson (Von Ryan’s Express). I Walked with a Zombie was directed by Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past), who also went on to a long, successful career.
All of Lewton’s horror films did well at the box office, but genuine critical acclaim would have to wait until the 1970’s. Today’s Lewton’s movies are hailed as some of the best b-movies in Hollywood history, studied and praised by master filmmakers like Martin Scorcese, who narrated a televised tribute to Lewton a few years back.
If you want something this Halloween that’s more creepy than bloody and more cerebral than slashing, check out I Walked with a Zombie, readily available on either disc or from streaming outlets.