Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Inez Wallace (story), Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray (screenplay), and Charlotte Bronte
Starring James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Darby Jones
Zombies are the big horror movie stars of the day, supplanting vampires for everyone except readers of Twilight. It's spilled over into books, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies becoming a big best seller. But if the idea of mixing zombies and literature in an old one in film, starting with one of the first zombie movies ever made, I Walked with a Zombie.
The film was one of the early Val Lewton horror films of the 1940s. Lewton brought on a new concept in horror: one where the monster was understated and the violence portrayed obliquely, so that the viewer's imagination took over. After the success of his Cat People, Lewton bought an article by Inez Wallace called "I Walked With a Zombie" in order to turn it into a film.
But the story wasn't what Lewton wanted, so he had his writers Curt Siodmak* and Ardel Wray try something else: he handed them a copy of Jane Eyre and told them to use that as a basis.
In the film, Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) goes to work as a nurse on a the island of Saint Sebastian in the Caribbean, in order to care for Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) the wife of planter Paul Holland (Tom Conway). Jessica is in some sort of trance. Her doctor calls it the result of a tropical fever, but the maid Alma (Teresa Harris) hints at the dark doings of voodoo.
Yes, this is the original idea of a zombie -- not just the living dead, but rather a corpse brought to life due to magic rituals. Betsy dismisses the idea -- agreeing with Paul's mother (Edith Barrett) that there's no such thing. But when modern methods fail, she begins to think about using voodoo to help cure Jessica.
The film is better than its description. It's long on mood and atmosphere and hints at the supernatural while leaving the question open. The most striking sequence is when Betsy decides to take Jessica to a voodoo ceremony in the hope it might help. The journey is a trip through a creepy sugar cane forest, meeting M. Carre-four (the imposing Darby Jones) and getting caught up in a voodoo ceremony, which leads to a surprising twist.
The story, of course, is much like Jane Eyre, with Betsy falling in love with Paul and Jessica as Rochester's wife. While it is certainly not a scene-for-scene remake of the book, the idea of taking the story from literature gives the movie something more than just the encounters with voodoo.
Director Tourneur is great at slowly building tension and is smart enough to treat all the voodoo trappings with utmost seriousness, and even with respect. He also keeps up a lot of ambiguity as to whether voodoo was really supernatural and whether it really had anything to do with the events of the film.
One of the more interesting aspects is the film's treatment of the Black characters in the film. In a time when African-Americans were only portrayed as stereotypes, the movie shows them a real people. Maybe they believe in voodoo, but they are portrayed with some real depth and humanity and without any of behavior that makes portrayals of Black cringeworthy.
Tourneur made several other horror films with Lewton, and later with The Night of the Demon. I Walked with a Zombie is a classic of the genre, and probably the place to begin to see how zombies originated.
*Best known for the science fiction classic Donovan's Brain.