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  I Walked with a Zombie The Living And The Dead
Year: 1943
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Stars: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Christine Gordon, Theresa Harris, Sir Lancelot, Darby Jones, Jeni Le Gon
Genre: HorrorBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 2 votes)
Review: Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is a nurse applying for a new job, and she is offered and takes the post on an island in the West Indies, looking after the catatonic wife (Christine Gordon) of a sugar plantation owner there, Paul Holland (Tom Conway). On the ship over, she meets Holland and finds him a curious but attractive figure, with his doomladen attitudes and devotion to the woman who cannot give anything back to him. Once Betsy arrives, she also meets Holland's half brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison), a chap with a sunnier dispostion, although that might be down to the amount of alcohol he drinks. Can she provide hope to these men?

For some, I Walked with a Zombie is equal to Cat People in the series of modest horrors produced by Val Lewton during the nineteen-forties, but it doesn't quite reach that top rank, being a little too vague in its plotting to really provide an experience as rich as Lewton's previous chiller. Yet that can be an attraction as well, as the film works up an atmosphere at least as sinister as anything in this run of cult movies, and has a lyrical quality that belies its low budget, with an authenticity about its walking dead and strange curses.

We never really find out whether the wife, Jessica, is under a curse or whether the shock of being found out that she was in love with Wesley was what tipped her over the edge into being asleep to the world, but for characters who don't say anything, and are simply required to look blank and wander around occasionally, then Jessica is undoubtedly among the best. The storyline was supposedly taken from an article by Inez Wallace, who had claimed to have met real zombies, but Lewton preferred to get his writers Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray to adapt Jane Eyre instead.

It's a cheeky idea, but offers the film a touch of class that might not otherwise have been present. What you particularly take away from this is an overwhelming sense of guilt: not simply Wesley's feeling that he is somehow responsible for Jessica's condition, or Holland feeling the same, or even their mother (Edith Barrett) piping up to say it was actually all her fault, but a more colonial guilt. We are frequently reminded that the black population are recent descendants of slaves, and the anguish and depair arising from that is palpable.

So when Betsy hears a someone crying one night, it turns out to be someone weeping over the birth of a baby, a tradition because of the hardship they have been born into, and the manner in which the workers cope is through their voodoo. The film takes this belief very seriously indeed, and this bolsters the feeling of otherwordly forces at work but not quite in the grasp of the characters, while also providing the film with its most celebrated scene. This is when Betsy takes Jessica to a ceremony where she hopes the patient will be cured, and is escorted through the rows of the plantation by an actual zombie, Carrefour (Darby Jones). It's a great sequence, and it's the handling of scenes like these by director Jacques Tourneur that makes this memorable, for all its nebulous qualities. Music by Roy Webb.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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