I walked with a Zombie - 1943
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
RKO Production #396
Val Lewton - Producer, Co-writer
Production started: October 26, 1942
Production finish: November 19, 1942
Running time 68 minutes
This 1943 Val Lewton effort from RKO stars James Ellison, Frances Dee, and Tom Conway. The excellent visuals are from director Jacques Tourneur.
In contrast to the Universal horror films of the era (which had built an audience that RKO was trying to appeal to with these mid-budget horror-exploitation projects), the Val Lewton motion pictures resisted most (though not all) opportunities for gore and flash, and instead presented a mood-soaked melodrama with a melancholy bent.
I Walked with a Zombie was a laughable title in 1943, and film star Frances Dee's first scene has her laughing and she speaks that very title as a phrase in her narrative introduction, which is an example of Lewton's script getting something out of the way and expressing self-awareness about the exploitative nature of the film, at least on the surface.
But an even more obvious reason for this is a famous article on the subject of voodoo that appeared in American Weekly Magazine and a desperate RKO was just trying to climb onboard the notoriety. In the gap between exploitation and horror-movie expectations, Lewton grafted in Jane Eyre (apparently by way of the 1932 film White Zombie) and then had Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray craft the script. But the final script edit was Lewton's (which contain numerous detailed notes on art direction and visual cues, showing how much Lewton was searching for a total effect upon the audience). This combined with Jacques Tourneur's visual sense made I Walked with a Zombie the rare cinematic item that it is.
In the film Frances Dee is a Canadian nurse, Betsy Connell, imported and employed by a plantation owner in the Caribbean, Paul Holland (Tom Conway), to care for his wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon), who is suffering from a mysterious ailment rendering her catatonic.
The longer that Betsy is on the island she discovers the local voodoo practices and due to various events begins to believe that Jessica could be a victim of a zombie curse.
There's a lot of information about this film at the I Walked with a Zombie web site.
Original page November 24, 1999 | Last update June 20, 2023