I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE was the second in the series of thought-provoking, literate horror films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s (the first was CAT PEOPLE), and, under the masterful direction of Jacques Tourneur, it is an unqualified horror masterpiece. The story idea and title were
borrowed from a series of newspaper articles that detailed voodoo and witchcraft practices in Haiti, hung on an off-the-wall adaptation of Jane Eyre!
Betsy (Dee) is a young nurse sent to Haiti by rich American planter Paul Holland (Conway) to take care of his catatonic wife, Jessica (Gordon). Paul thinks his wife has gone insane, and is ridden with guilt that he may have caused it. The locals suspect, however, that Jessica has become a
zombie--one of the living dead. Betsy, who makes little progress with Jessica, meets Paul's mother (Barrett), a contradictory woman torn between her strong beliefs in the Christian church and in voodoo, and his brother, Wesley (Ellison), who is slowly drinking himself to death as he watches his
brother's mistreatment of Jessica, whom he has always secretly loved. To make matters worse, Betsy and her employer begin to fall in love. Their desire to marry is intense, but impossible as long as Jessica lives. Not wanting to lose Paul, nor to see him torture himself, Betsy attempts to cure
Jessica by taking her to a voodoo ceremony, in hopes that the experience will shock her back to "life."
Lewton's horror was based on the suggested, the psychological--not the visceral, tangible "monsters" that characterized the Universal horror series in the 1930s and 40s. The terror was presented in a shadowy, low-key atmosphere that allowed the audience to imagine and feel the unease instead of
showing it to them, making the chills much more effective. The most outstanding example of this approach here is director Tourneur's beautiful realization of the lengthy, haunting, and elegiac sequence in which Betsy walks through the sugar cane fields with the silent Jessica to the voodoo
ceremony. The scene is played in silence, save for the distant sound of drums and the gentle rustling of the wind. Visually, it is filled with gentle, floating movements--of Jessica's white gown, of the sugar cane in the wind--that are abruptly halted with the appearance of the massive zombie
guard (Jones) whose presence signals the women's arrival at their destination. This scene is unforgettable, as is the entire film. Essential viewing.
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- Review: I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE was the second in the series of thought-provoking, literate horror films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s (the first was CAT PEOPLE), and, under the masterful direction of Jacques Tourneur, it is an unqualified horror masterpiece.… (more)