O Lord God most holy, deliver them from the bitter pains of eternal death. The woman was a wicked woman, and she was dead in her own life. Yea Lord, dead in the selfishness of her spirit, and the man followed her. Her steps led him down to evil, her feet took hold of death. Forgive him, O Lord, who knows the secrets of all hearts. Yea Lord, pity them who are dead, and give peace and happiness to the living. -- from the Epilog to the film
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Producer: Val Lewton
Script: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray, and (ncredited) Val Lewton.
Based on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Title taken from an article by Inez Wallace.
Starring: Francis Dee, Tom Conway, and James Ellison.
Betsy, a young Canadian nurse (portrayed by Francis Dee), travels to San Sebatian, an island in the West Indies, to care for Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), the ailing wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway). Betsy is shocked by her first meeting with her patient -- a middle of the night encounter with a beautiful but apparently mindless woman in a white gown wandering about the house. Jessica seems to be suffering from a kind of mental paralysis as a result of fever or perhaps, as Betsy comes to suspect, as a result of voodoo
Betsy also meets Paul's younger half-brother, Wesley Rand (James Ellison), who is an alcoholic. She learns, thanks to the lyrics of a song performed by a local calypso performer (Sir Lancelot), that Paul and Jessica had been aduterous lovers before her illness. Later, after Wesley has passed out, the singer adds a new stanza about a pretty young nurse who comes to help the wife but attracts the attentions of both brothers. Next, Betsy is "rescued" from her situation in the bar by Mrs. Rand -- mother of both Paul and Wesley and propreitor of the local apothecary shop.
When a last ditch, radical cure fails to bring Jessica out of her walking catatonia, Betsy decides to seek a voodoo cure. This results in the terrific and title-justifying scene in which Betsy "walks with a zombie" through the cane fields. But, is she a zombie? That is the central question of the film. Since this is a Val Lewton film, no firm answer is on offer.
Then, there is also the possible question of who is the zombie? On the most obvious level, "zombie" refers to Jessica. But, on another level, it might refer to Paul who adopts a cold, unemotional manner in his dealings with others, including Betsy and his other employees. As the story progresses, he begins to open up at times with Betsy, revealing a more human and feeling nature, then retreating back into his more zombified character. In one scene, he talks with her about his family and his relationship with his brother. As he talks about his feelings, the voodoo drums start up and Paul dismisses Betsy and walks off alone -- zombie-like?.
It is well known that after being ordered by his bosses at RKO to make a movie to fit the title "I Walked With a Zombie", Lewton told screenwriter Curt Siodmak that he should write "Jane Eyre in the tropics". The elements from Jane Eyre are clear enough but one might also perceive some elements from Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca. It is significant, perhaps, that these were two of the novels Lewton had adapted for the screen before coming to RKO. It may also be relevant that he came to ROK in the wake of the financial disaster visited on RKO by the failure of Orson Welles first two films (Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) and one of Welles' early stage triumphs had been a voodoo re-working of Macbeth. Welles, of course, starred in a movie version of Jane Eyre a year after I Walked With a Zombie.
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Betsy first meets Paul Holland aboard the ship carrying them from Canada to San Sebastian. As they appraoch their destination, Betsy is enjoying the beauty of the Caribbean sea when Paul breaks in on her reverie.
Paul: It's not beautiful.
Betsy: You read my thoughts Mr. Holland.
Paul: 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 dead bodies. There's only death and decay here...
Betsy: You can't believe that.
They look out from the ship and see a falling star
Paul: Everything good dies here ... even the stars...
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In 1945, RKO made a spoof of I Walked With a Zombie, titled Zombies on Broadway starring their "comedy" team, Wally Brown and Alan Carney, who are often described as a "cut-rate version of Abbott and Costello". It was pretty awful.