“There’s no beauty here. Only death and decay.”
Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is a Canadian nurse. She is hired by an agency to travel to St. Sebastian, in West Indies. She is to work for the Holland family as a nurse to Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), the wife of the sugar plantation owner Paul Holland (Tom Conway). Betsy also meets Paul’s half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison). She also meets Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), Wesley’s and Paul’s mother.
Her patient, Jessica, suffered from a tropical fever that left her mentally unbalanced and unable to talk. Betsy ends up falling in love with Paul. She wants to help Jessica regain her senses for him. She suggests that the local doctor Dr. Maxwell (James Bell) try a shock treatment on Jessica. The treatment fails.
While talking to the maid Alma (Theresa Harris), she discovers that another woman was cured in a voodoo ceremony. She decides to take Jessica to a voodoo ceremony and see if they islanders can cure her. However the natives believe that Jessica is a zombie that cannot be cured. They want to perform some ritual tests on her.
Doctor Maxwell reports that unrest on the island has sparked an official inquiry into what happened to Jessica. Paul will be the subject of the inquiry since Wesley believes he is responsible.
From local gossip Betsy has learned that Wesley was in love with Jessica and that Jessica wanted to divorce Paul and run away with Wes before she got sick. Now Wesley blames Paul and Paul blames himself for Jessica’s affliction. Mrs. Rand also believes that she is responsible for Jessica’s condition. Not wanting her family to be split apart she says she felt herself possessed by a voodoo god and put a curse on Jessica. She believes that the curse tuned Jessica into a zombie. Paul, Betsy and Maxwell dismiss Mrs. Rand’s theory. Maxwell maintains that Jessica’s mental state is due to the fever and not voodoo. Wesley, on the other hand now believes that Jessica is a zombie and the only way to free her is euthanasia.
“I Walked With a Zombie” was released in 1943 and was directed by Jacques Tourneur. The film was produced by Val Lewton and written by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray. The movie is also a film noir. I wouldn’t exactly call it a horror movie. More of a melodrama with voodoo. A gothic romance in the West Indies. Jane Eyre in the jungle.
When Val Lewton was hired to get RKO’s ‘horror division’ out of the red he was given three rules. One, each film had to run about 75 minutes. Two, come under budget ($150,000). Three, RKO would assign the title to the movie. Val had to take it from there. What do you do with a title of “I Walked With A Zombie”? Apparently under Val Lewton, a lot. Orson Wells’ genius put the studio in the red. When Charles Koerner took over the new motto was “Showmanship in place of Genius”. With Lewton they managed to get both.