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I Walked With a Zombie (1943)


"I waaant to Piiick your Caaane!"
"I waaant to Piiick your Caaane!"

Genre: Horror

Starring: Frances Dee (Of Human Bondage (1934)Little Women (1933)), Tom Conway (The Seventh Victim "Mark Saber"), James Ellison (Vivacious LadyThe Plainsman)

Directed By: Jacques Tourneur (Out of the PastCat People)

Overview: A nurse is sent to the West Indies to care for the sick wife of a plantation owner. When the nurse suspects that voodoo magic might be able to cure the sick woman when conventional medicine couldn’t, she delves into an eerie, secret world.

Well the 1001 Club is fairly unanimous: I Walked with a Zombie is nothing grandiose – in fact, most club bloggers dare put it in the rare ‘downright middling’ zone. But it’s not quite a film to dismiss completely. Granted, pigeonholing this one into the Horror genre is a far stretch – I wouldn’t go much further than ‘Romance Thriller’ personally, and it’s not quite as terrifying as Fatal Attraction. Maybe I Walked with a Zombie doesn’t quite deserve to walk with the other 1000 films that helped define our culture and found themselves compiled into one beautiful tome, but there’s a lot about it that works.   

We open with Betsy Connell (France Dee), a Canadian nurse from Ottawa (Hometown Repruzhent!) who agrees to a job in the West Indies. There she would take care of Jessica (Christine Gordon), the sick wife of the stiff and bleak plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway). When Jessica was struck ill, the fever burned up her mind, and now she does little more than eat and drift through the halls of the plantation’s home. Nurse Betsy is determined to see what she can do to cure her. She hears more than a few tales that a curative trip to the Home Fort for a visit to the Houngan, a voodoo priest, may well be an option.

Yeah, I know! Not bad for a rotting chick.
Yeah, I know! Not bad for a rotting chick.

Paul Holland: It's easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer. Everything seems beautiful because you don't understand. Those flying fish, they're not leaping for joy, they're jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay.

Betsy Connell: You can't really believe that. 

Paul Holland [watching a shooting star]: Everything good dies here. Even the stars.

As I said when I began, I Walked with a Zombie is nothing special. The cinematography and soundtrack is exactly what you’d expect from a B-budget early 40s film, and with a few exceptions, isn’t much to write blog about. Then, save for a mildly interesting drunken Wesley Rand (James Ellison) scene, all the white characters are fairly boring. The nurse is caring, the owner with the sick wife is morose, and that wife… drools. Their third dimension is never quite explored – though admittedly that might be difficult in 69 minutes. The black actors really don’t say much - if anything all - but at least they’re animated.

Mrs. Rand: Don't worry about a sugar planter. Give him a horse and he'll ride to his own funeral.

But there are things that impress, there are moments that sucked me right in and made me feel my retinas widen. There are some surprisingly wonderful lines, my favourites included throughout this post. I particularly enjoyed the songs sung by the Calypso singer (Sir Lancelot, major influence to Harry Belafonte). Then came the second half, and with it all the moments that reminded me of how Sam Fuller could push through the B-Grade cinema and give us a real treat. Betsy’s trek through the cane fields is where the movie turns to film. Horrible landmarks I dare not spoil for you guide her way to the Home Fort where the workers engage in their nightly voodoo rituals. They dance, they are possessed, they dance some more. Every scene in the Home Fort is incredible, and I would have gladly sat through 10 more minutes of watching people gyrate with juju sticks as they dressed voodoo dolls and cast their spells. I admit that I don’t know much about West Indies voodoo rituals, but I believed its authenticity in I Walked with a Zombie.

Paul Holland: …our people came… from the misery and pain of slavery. For generations they found life a burden. That's why they still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial... I've told you, Miss Connell: this is a sad place.

At 69 minutes, I Walked with a Zombie is not a chore to watch as a ‘1001’ study, especially with the chilling, spooky atmosphere – not to mention that amazing zombie guard played by Darby Jones. But if you decide to watch this with someone who doesn’t understand your passion for the list, don’t be surprised if you hear the words ‘Why is this on the list, exactly?’

To tell you the truth, I’m still not entirely sure myself.

 Yeah, impressive guy.
Yeah, impressive guy.

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 7 Script: 8 Plot: 8 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 76% (No Need To Run, But A Stroll Isn't Bad)

Did I mention the woman is from my hometown of Ottawa, Ontario? Yeah, I THOUGHT I did!

Oh and for those of you who don’t know what a ‘voodoo’ or ‘plantation’ zombie is as opposed to a ‘Romero’ zombie, well these came first so don’t go gettin' upset cause it didn’t try to eat Betsy’s brain when you thought it would.

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