Favorite things about… I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

The favorite film:
I Walked with a Zombie, a 1943 horror produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur

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(Image via Wrong Side of the Art)

The synopsis:
A Canadian nurse takes a job on a far away island, and upon arriving discovers that her patient is not physically ill, but a “mental case.” After being struck by a terrible fever, the patient’s spinal cord was seriously damaged, leaving her in a zombie-like state. But there’s more than meets the eye to the story, as the nurse uncovers the skeletons lurking in the closets of her patient, and the patient’s family.

The cast:

  • Frances Dee as Betsy Connell, the nurse
  • Christine Gordon as Jessica Holland, the patient
  • Tom Conway as Paul Holland, Jessica’s husband
  • James Ellison as Wesley Rand, Paul’s half-brother
  • Edith Barrett as Mrs. Rand, mother of Tom and Paul
  • James Bell as Dr. Maxwell
  • Theresa Harris as Alma

Fun facts:

  • I Walked with a Zombie‘s screenplay was written by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray from a story by Inez Wallace.
  • Though the film is technically based on Wallace’s story, Lewton and his writers also called upon Jane Eyre for inspiration.
  • The character of Betsy was originally going to be played by Anna Lee.
  • Of the film’s opening in NYC, the New York Times wrote that the film “opened yesterday to a packed house at the Rialto and, at one point, drew a horrified scream from a woman patron. It’s just like the days of old when ‘The Bat’ and ‘The Gorilla’ were scaring audiences out of their wits, and ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ was making the night hideous for children and the more impressionable oldsters.” (The rest of the review was not so kind, painting the film as morally offensive!)
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(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
  • Edith Barrett and her on-screen sons Tom Conway and James Ellison were actually all quite close in age. Conway was actually older than Barrett!
  • Screenwriter Ardel Wray shared that Lewton was obsessed with researching voodoo during the production of this film. The calypso singer in the film is a real one that Lewton tracked down, known as Sir Lancelot. Sir Lancelot introduced Lewton to practitioners of voodoo, who also appeared in the film, most notably in the doll scene.
  • Speaking of Sir Lancelot, he wrote the song that he performs in the film, along with Ardel Wray.
  • According to TCM, this was Val Lewton’s favorite of his own films, though he hated the title, which was forced upon him by an RKO exec.

Favorite things:

  • “Any similarity to actual persons living, dead, or possessed, is purely coincidental.”
  • That unsuspecting beachy scene under the opening credits. BUT THEN:
  • “I walked with a zombie. Does seem an odd thing to say. Had anyone said that to me a  year ago, I’m not at all sure I would have known what a ‘zombie’ was. I might have had some notion that they were strange and frightening, even a little funny. It all began in such an ordinary way…”
  • Lured into the job by the promise of warm weather and palm trees. #relatable, haha!
  • “There’s no beauty  here, only death and decay.”
  • “The jungle drums. Mysterious. Eerie! …That’s the work drum over at the sugar mill.”
  • That spooky first look of “zombie” Mrs. Holland, gliding through the garden in her flowing white gown (and followed by the sound of disembodied crying!)
  • Mrs. Holland very slowly “chasing” Betsy around the room and up the tower stairs
  • “She makes a beautiful zombie, doesn’t she?”
  • “Must be hard work entertaining me, if it requires six ounces of rum.”
  • Wesley trying to talk over the song about his family so Betsy doesn’t hear it
  • The singer’s newly-added lines about Betsy’s arrival (“The brothers are lonely and the nurse is young!”)
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(Image via Film Noir Photos)
  • Selfless Betsy putting aside her own feelings in order to try to revive Jessica so Mr. Holland can be happy. What a class act.
  • I love Betsy’s treatment of the local voodoo customs as a viable solution rather than an oddity or something evil. The film in general offers quite a respectful treatment of the tradition, especially in a time when the “horror”/exoticism of it would usually be much more heavily emphasized.
  • That plot twist of Mrs. Rand being the voodoo doctor!
  • The film has such fantastic atmosphere — slightly eerie at times, but more so mysterious and melancholy.
  • Mrs. Rand’s revelation that she “made” Jessica into a zombie
  • “I am not an imaginative or fanciful woman, doctor.”
  • Love how this (like many Lewton films) walks the line between superstition and science, never giving the viewer a solid answer as to whether the supernatural is real
  • “The woman was a wicked woman, as she was dead in her own life.”
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6 thoughts on “Favorite things about… I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

  1. I’ve loved I Walked With A Zombie for eons. It showed me that Val Lewton created what I’d previously thought to be an oxymoron: an intelligent horror film. The horrors seem more real, and more terrifying because they really come not from the outside, but from the inside. I had the pleasure of meeting Frances Dee at Ginger Rogers’ 50th Anniversary Oscar Party in 1991. I only spoke to her for a moment. She was still a slim and lovely woman, although somewhat sad. Joel McCrea had passed away the previous year.

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  2. The “plot twist” of a white person being in charge of the voodoo cult is as old as the word “zombie” in Western media. However, in more typical examples (“White Zombie,” “King of the Zombies,” “Voodoo Island”), it’s always a white man, so at least Lewton put a gender twist on it!

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    1. Yeah, that was what I found most interesting about it. That and, when I first saw this film as a teen, I genuinely wasn’t expecting her to be behind it. So I’ve always liked that scene!

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