Despite its somewhat ominous title, I Walked With a Zombie, for the most part, is really quite beautiful. A strange thing to say perhaps when talking about a horror film, but this one happens to be quite light on that particular aspect and focuses more on atmosphere than really scaring its audience. Of all the collaborations between Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton, this one is probably the best for the simple fact that it was something completely unexpected and executed to perfection. That is not to say that it is not an eerie film, there are many moments that will start to make the viewer feel uneasy such as the voodoo drums in the distance, the strange crying which Betsy is forced to investigate and more and that moody atmosphere, that horror is subtle and even elegant in its presentation.
Written by Universal mainstay Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, history says that Lewton wanted it to follow Jane Eyre in story and structure and thus the film begins in narration from Betsy, the main character’s point of view. Betsy, as played by Francis Dee, is a nurse from Canada who has come to Saint Sebastian to care for a woman named Jessica who has a very strange malady that leaves her in a zombie-like state. She is soon introduced to Jessica’s husband Paul and his half-brother Wesley. Over the course of the film, many things are tried to cure Jessica of what afflicts her including voodoo which is practiced by the locals and all the while as Betsy starts to fall in love with Paul. Some things are not meant to be cured though and Jessica’s final fate soon becomes just that.
The production is quite astounding when you think of how the film was made essentially without any money. The budgets were so small for Lewton’s pictures that a lot of trickery and shortcuts went into making them as good as they were. As previously stated, the film is quite beautiful and the star of this show is the cinematography by J. Roy Hunt which was really quite exquisite at times. Whether it was indoors at the house of Betsy’s employers, down by the ocean or even at the voodoo ceremony, everything looked stunning and yet, even as good as it looks, there is an uneasy quality to it as you know that something is wrong and there is something larger at play. More than anything, it is that fact that makes the horror in this film work as good as it does as it runs alongside of the allure of the setting, quiet and subdued, yet always present. As small as the budget might have been on this film, it looked as if it could have been made with ten times the amount it actually cost and you have to give Lewton credit for making the most of what he was given.
From start to finish, you will find it hard to tear your eyes away from this film as it completely enchants you. I Walked With a Zombie is an old-fashioned type of horror movie, one that relies on story and skill to deliver what fright it can instead of throwing a lot of blood or gore at the viewer. Tourneur directs with a steady hand and while the story is a simple one, you never lose interest in the haunting tale it tells. An excellent film that proves a little can go a long way and that horror comes in many different flavours.
4.5 out of 5