“Halloween Twenty-Fifteen”: A Review of “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943)

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I Walked with a Zombie is one of those rare occasions when a movie can be well-made yet suck at the same time. Cinematography? Striking. Script? Intelligent. Acting? Manages to avoid the usual ham. So what went wrong with this 1943 zombie horror flick? Well, for starters, it just falls flat. Keep in mind, the picture looks incredibly good, and a creepy and atmospheric tension is throughout, but nothing ever really happens to entertain us. It can be appreciated that this film relies on sounds more than images—the distant beating of jungle drums, wailing and moaning in the middle of the night, as well as wind and animal noises. The images present, though, do not convey any sense of horror or terror, and the story does not delve deep enough in any direction to fully engross the viewer.

The beginning of the film is a bit unusual in the sense that it does not follow the stereotypical early Hollywood portrayal of voodoo as a cult of bloodthirsty savages led by an evil master chanting spells and dancing in trance. In fact, it is even called a religion (which it is, and partly based in Roman Catholicism) and no one seems to be wandering in and out of scenes freaking out. Then, of course, by the midway point, we have the voodoo dolls, mind-control spells, and the practitioners being referred to as barbaric.

As for a story, it is remarkably simple: a nurse (Frances Dee) travels to the West Indies to care for a patron’s wife (Christine Gordon) who is in a semi-catatonic state. She is alive, yet dead. She can follow simple commands but does not think, speak, or do anything with intelligence. There is a debate within the family on whether her malady was the result of a high fever that damaged her brain cells or a voodoo curse. You can probably figure out which cause it ended up being. It wouldn’t be a horror movie without it. In the meantime, the nurse actually seeks out voodoo help in an attempt to cure her patient because nothing else works. Unbeknownst to her, that action will be the catalyst to her really becoming cursed.

By the end, the victim is entirely entranced by her evil soul-catchers and the race is on to save her. That’s pretty much it. The level of acting is higher than one might expect, but again, there is just no substance to anything. The atmosphere and cinematography for this black-and-white film are excellent but if it was not for how pleasing this was to the eyes, it would be an all out dud. Director Jacques Tourneur did not swing and miss with this one, but let’s say he fouled off a couple of pitches. Also starring James Ellison and Edith Barrett.

6 out of 10 stars.

More articles in this special “Halloween Twenty-Fifteen” column can be found here.

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