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Old Ass Movies: Know the Horror of ‘I Walked with a Zombie’

By  · Published on August 30th, 2009

Every week, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

I realize it’s been a few weeks since OAM has been in hiding, waiting around the corner to pounce on its latest victim, so I figured it was a great idea to come back from the break by taking a look at a fantastic example of 40s era suspense while Halloween 2: The Second 2 and The Final Destination are in theaters.

If anything, it should give you a solid alternative.

In 1942, the team of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur released the horror film Cat People – one of the most famous horror films to date. The next year they would deliver I Walked with a Zombie, a gripping tale told in the similar trademark suspenseful style which used light and shadow instead of a lot of special effects. The story itself – which borrows a bit from the scary-in-its-own-right “Jane Eyre” – is about young nurse Betsy (Frances Dee) who heads to the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian to look after the comatose wife (Christine Gordon) of a major plantation owner named Holland (Tom Conway). In trying to cure her, Betsy becomes convinced that she’s under a voodoo spell set upon her by the slaves of the island.

While not a horror film in any strict sense of the term, I Walked with a Zombie is scary as hell. Tourneur gets away with murder by placing his audiences on the edge of their seats by barely doing anything at all on screen. A certain look from an actor, a suggestive small bit of dialog, and the right setting and all of the sudden you realize that your heart is racing.

At the beginning of the film, Betsy admires the beauty and splendor of the Caribbean as she sails for her new home, but Holland assures her (and the audience) that everything she sees is truly ghastly. The majestic flying fish that soar through the air and back down into the water? They are jumping in terror for their lives. The bright luminescence of the ocean in the late afternoon? It’s sparkle comes from thousands of dead bodies. What was once an idyllic land of beauty and sun-drenched days lounging on the sand is made to be what it really is – a brutal sweat lodge where the nightmarish visions are all real.

Be warned, though. To dive deep into this movie, you’ll have to throw out your preconceived notions about what makes a horror film and particularly what makes a zombie movie. This flick was made long before Romero called “Action!” so it doesn’t involve the brain-starved masses of former-humans endlessly lumbering toward you. What it does involve is a dark, haunting story punctuated by fevered scenes of action and some frightening voodoo-style zombies.

The most famous of all scenes is perhaps one where the afflicted Jessica and nurse Betsy make their way through the cane field amidst a host of animal sacrifices and other stomach-turning rituals being performed in the secret of the night. The tension builds until both women emerge from the cane below the intense visage of the slave zombie Carre-Four (Darby Jones) who does more to make you lose sleep at night by standing still and staring than most horror flick villains do with a bloodied knife or a witty bit of threatening dialog (think The Tall Man from Phantasm if he was huge, black, and had the empty eyes of a zombie).

Of course the true brilliance of the film is the number of sides and alliances being made, the things left unsaid, and the stories behind the main story. Their are surprises around every corner – who the head witch doctor on the island really is, the true nature of why Jessica fell ill in the first place, and of course there’s the racial tension that builds between the slaves of the island and the plantation owners. All of it is scary, but it’s scary because its born from human failings. Greed, lust, envy. The movie focuses on the very real, very wicked reality of human nature and somehow manages to make you believe in witchcraft and voodoo along the way. Stabbing a knife into a young woman to find out if she’ll bleed is a hell of a way to get the audience believing in spirits.

Along the way, Betsy begins to fall in love with Holland and faces the conflict of genuinely wanting to cure his wife which means working against her own interests no matter what she does. If she fails to cure her patient, she’ll be free to love Holland, but she won’t be able to live with herself. But would she be able to live without the man she loves? Luckily for her, and the audience, the twists and turns of the story mean that no one is safe from these sorts of moral dilemmas looming large over their head and keeping them as slaves to the darker sides of their humanity.

I Walked with a Zombie is a movie that will form beads of sweat on your forehead without you realizing it. It’s atmospheric, and Tourneur is a master of making you fill in the gaps with your own vivid, blood-curdling imagination. By five minutes in you’ll start to feel something creepy is going on in the heat of the Caribbean. Within ten, it’ll become dark and sinister, and soon you’ll be overcome with a feeling of dread as you realize that the lives of the people on screen are doomed – whether they live, die, or live again.

Forgive the corny factor going on here in the true style of the 1940s Chills, Spills, Thrills trailer and check out the advertisement that had audiences flocking to theaters in 1943:

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