Producer Val Lewton’s string of horror films in the 40s are apparently a standard in the history of the genre, well regarded and well made. Cat People turned out to be such a success that Lewton would bring director Jacques Tourneur back for another one. I Walked with a Zombie is not what one would think of a ‘zombie flick’. There’s no gore, or other physical effect extravaganzas, and there’s only one zombie, and even that one stretches the definition as we know it today. While zombie films of today opt for gross-out effect and splatter-fests, this instead offers a supreme sense of the eerie, just like Cat People did.
The film tells the tale of nurse Betsy Connell, who is hired to care for the wife of a plantation owner who lives on a Caribbean island. The wife is the titular zombie; thanks to a bad fever and spinal cord damage, she has lost all willpower and walks aimless through the halls, or lies near-comatose in her bed (in what, I couldn’t help but think, had to be the easiest acting job of the classical Hollywood era). Betsy ends up sympathizing (or perhaps a little more than that) with the plantation owner, and she spends the rest of the film trying to cure the wife of her affliction, which runs her headlong into the local tribe of voodoo practitioners. First off, the film spends a lot of the first half hour or so with narration, as the film is told in flashback, and narration is a tricky beast to handle; it can either add another layer to the complexity of the film, or it can just be a crutch for exposition. This toed the line, but didn’t come down on one side or the other. In the last half hour, where the narration all but disappears, the film worked much better, as most of the empty space with no dialogue, instead of taken up by narration, is spent in disquieting silence, amping up the tension and the nervous energy, and it’s quite enjoyable.
I liked this one. There was a pervasive eerieness that made it likable, and added to that the pretty short running time (just over an hour), meant that there wasn’t a lot of time to kill with this one. It was short, concise, and to the point, and didn’t overstay its welcome. Now, granted, this also meant the film was exceedingly thrifty, almost to a fault, but I was thankful enough that I didn’t begrudge it any. I’m not sure the Val Lewton/RKO horror flicks of the 40s warrant the three spots on the list I found in a cursory look-through of the Book, but you know what; I liked this too much to hold it against the list. There was a lot going for it, and very little against it. I don’t know if I’d say to hunt this one down and see it, but if you have the time, definitely give this one some thought. It’s not very conventional, and in this case, that’s a good thing.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10