On her first day off after assuming her duties on the plantation, Betsy meets Wesley, (Paul's younger brother, portrayed by James Ellison), in town and they stop for a drink at a restaurant. There the live music, (provided by Sir Lancelot), infuriates Wesley, as the song they hear describes the sordid past history of his family. What had been merely sordid (the song reveals that Paul's wife, Jessica, had been having an affair with Wesley before she had entered into her catatonic zombie-like state....), becomes downright frightening. Wesley drinks himself into a stupor, leaving Betsy to fend for herself. Sir Lancelot begins the tune anew, but adds new and rather ominous lyrics, some referring to Betsy's relationship with the brothers. The scene abruptly stops when the mother of Paul and Wesley suddenly arrives, cheerfully looking down at her drunken son and volunteering to help get him back on his horse so he can return to the plantation. When Betsy protests that Wesley is in no shape to ride, the mother answers, "Don't worry about a sugar planter.... give him a horse and he'll ride to his own funeral ...."
The play on the meaning behind the word "zombie" is repeated on several levels throughout this film. For example, while Paul Holland's nearly invalid wife is clearly a "zombie" (and this is built upon throughout the film) Paul is shown to also be something of a zombie. Insisting upon an unemotional, official demeanor while dealing with Betsy and while performing his responsibilities as the owner of the plantation, Paul slips and slides in between a warmer, more emotive self and a cold-hearted self. One senses the significance of this shift when he attempts to discuss with Betsy the situation in his family, especially with regards to the relationship between himself and Wesley. As he elaborates his feelings about this situation, the drums at the "Houmfort," (a place where the local voodoo worshippers assemble), suddenly start up. Immediately Paul snaps back into his zombie-like shell, dismissing Betsy coldly and walking off alone.
Over time, Betsy begins to feel drawn toward Paul, and in an effort to combat her conflicting feelings, she becomes determined to bring about the recovery of Paul's catatonic wife, Jessica. When medical science fails, Betsy takes Jessica to the Houmfort to see what the voodoo practitoners might be able to achieve. After passing through the plantation's fields, and gaining entrance passed the entranced guard (actor Darby Jones), the two women come upon the steadily building frenzy of a voodoo worship service.
After observing the others there, Betsy stumbles across the secret of the Houmfort: Paul and Wesley's mother hides within a hut that serves as the focus of "divine communication" from the voodoo gods .... only it is a quite human woman who is pretending to be the divine being the worshippers are there to beg advice from.
In a later scene, the Doctor and Paul's mother have a confrontation over Jessica's condition. She has become convinced that Jessica is indeed a zombie, and proceeds to explain why. The Doctor replies: "You're a very imaginative woman..."
As the film progresses, it becomes evident that the zombie-like Jessica is not new to the Houmfort ... in fact, there are people among the voodoo worshippers who have been working to get Jessica to come back to them ... permanently.
Wesley becomes convinced, as is his mother, that the cause of Jessica's state is voodoo, while Paul remains adamant that this explanation is superstitious nonsense. Betsy dwells in between these two poles, leaning one way and then the other.
(Above) from an Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) painting.
the script, Curt Siodmak all but ignored the original short
story and came up with his own idea. Remembering the
From Andrew Horn's retrospective on Zombie from the 1988 Berlin Film Festival.
"Carre-Four," the zombie which guards the paths leading to the Houm Fort, is apparently named from the French word, carrefour, meaning, literally, "cross road."