“Actually, it's very difficult for a reviewer to give something called ‘I Walked With a Zombie’ a good review.” So wrote producer Val Lewton in a letter to his sister. It’s one of the few times his instincts about film failed him. Nothing could be easier than writing positive things about any of the nine horror films he produced—and frequently wrote under one of his several pseudonyms—for RKO between “Cat People” in 1942 and “Bedlam” in 1946.
“I Walked With a Zombie,” admittedly a title that only a pulp magazine editor could love, was the second of Lewton’s films as producer of RKO’s newly formed horror movie unit. The idea then as now was to make chillers on the cheap that would return healthy profits. To keep costs down, Lewton relied more on lighting and sound to create an atmosphere of dread and unease.
The film begins with lush, romantic theme music more appropriate to a woman’s picture than a tale of voodoo. “Zombie” is what might be called now a “re-imagining” of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.” Frances Dee stars as Betsy Connell, a Canadian nurse who takes a job caring for the wife of a sugar plantation owner in the West Indies. On the boat taking her to her new home, she meets Paul Holland (Tom Conway, who appeared in two other Lewton thrillers). Holland is suffering from acute weltschmertz and tells Betsy that the beauty of nature only serves to disguise “death and decay.” She has no idea that he is her employer or she might have been tempted to return to Canada.
Just about the time the audience begins to think of Paul as Byronic, someone in the film describes him with just that word.
During her first night at the plantation, Betsy is told that she will meet the wife for whom she is to care the next day. Paul tells her nothing of Jessica’s condition, which just adds to the atmosphere of disquiet. Later that night, Betsy awakens to the sound of a woman weeping. Looking out her window, she sees a thin, blond woman in white wandering in what appears to be a trance around the garden. She follows the woman into an old tower. Inside, the woman begins to stalk her, completely without reaction as Betsy screams. Paul and some servants show up and the woman is led away. Betsy explains about trying to find out who was weeping and why, and Paul tells her that she must have been dreaming.
The next night, Paul’s brother Wes (James Ellison) and his mother (Edith Barrett) join the dinner party. The brothers get into an argument about what’s best to do for Jessica, who was the woman Betsy followed into the tower, and it becomes clear that Wes is in love with his brother’s wife. The subject of voodoo comes up and Paul dismisses it by saying that “superstition is a contagious thing.” He is repressed and soulfully unhappy, but Betsy is falling under his sway.
Betsy finds companionship with the servants, who are all happy and content. What at first seems to be a sad period stereotype is soon seen to be a disguise adopted by the house crew to hide their involvement with voodoo. Alma, the maid (Teresa Harris), suggests that a voodoo priest might be able to help the non-communicative Jessica (Christine Gordon). Betsy, knowing that Paul would never approve but thinking that it couldn’t hurt, decides to take Jessica to a voodoo ceremony that night.
The journey of the two women through the fields of sugar cane constitutes the film’s most celebrated sequence. Betsy is dressed sensibly and Jessica is wearing her standard loose fitting and flowing white gown, her blond hair whipped by the breeze. Director Jacques Tourneur puts no music behind this dark walk. We hear the wind as it moves through the cane. The camera moves with it, showing us the women as they progress along a path through the stalks.
The wind picks up as Betsy and Jessica move along from the safety of the plantation deeper into the heart of darkness. They pass the corpse of a goat, hanging from a tree, swaying across their path. They see an animal skull, and then a human one. Betsy’s pace increases as does the sound of the wind. Perhaps the sequence’s greatest shock comes with the sudden appearance of a skeletal male zombie blocking the trail. Given the proper signal supplied to Betsy by Alma, he allows the women to pass.
At the ceremony, the true nature of Jessica’s ailment is revealed.
Later, at the plantation house, Wes admits that he believes Jessica to be one of the walking dead. Paul denies this, believing just as fervently that the loneliness of living on the island has driven her mad. Since he has now fallen in love with Betsy, he demands that she leave so the same fate won’t befall her.
From this point, final secrets are revealed, the inevitable occurs, and the film hastens to its romantically gothic conclusion.
There are no sudden shock moments in “I Walked With a Zombie,” but that wasn’t Lewton’s idea of how a horror movie should be constructed. He believed in building tension from the opening scene, and everything in the movie is one more brick in the final structure. Cues to upcoming scares are not given on the soundtrack. The unexpected appearance of the thin zombie on the path to the voodoo ceremony is not underscored by an orchestral bang any more than turning around in a dark house to suddenly be confronted by a walking dead man would be emphasized by any sound other than your own gasp in real life. The wind and the steady drone of the surf are enough.
Lewton wasn’t interested in scourging the skin from your bones—he just wanted to get under it. Fans of the modern no-holds-barred horror movie may find his films slow and too quiet to be effective, but connoisseurs of psychological chillers will find much to admire in his approach.
This is definitely not Romero or Fulci, but Lewton wasn’t interested in making audiences scream and then forget their phony movie fears on their way across the parking lot to their cars. He wanted to make the experience of walking in the dark as terrifying outside the theater as it had been inside. The bleak, melancholy dread of “I Walked With a Zombie” stays with you for a very long time.