What characterises I Walked with a Zombie, right from its opening scene of two distant silhouettes walking along an unnamed beach, is its air of mystery. Set on the fictitious Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian, its story feeds on the speculation of its characters and audience, ultimately leaving them both with more questions than when they arrived.
Frances Dee plays nurse Betsy Connell, who, having been sent to the West Indies to care for the ailing wife of a plantation owner, finds herself at the center of an obscure scandal. Jessica, her patient, is a mute and unresponsive “mental case” (the characters’ words, not my own), and Betsy is told repeatedly that there is no hope of her recovery. Paul Holland, Jessica’s husband, seems distant and suspicious, and we soon find out that his half-brother, Wesley, was in love with his sister-in-law and had planned to run away with her before she fell ill. The finger is therefore pointed at Paul from the beginning: how far would he have gone to keep Jessica on the island, and away from Wesley? Mrs Rand, the brothers’ mother, also seems to keep her fair share of secrets. Who, then, is responsible for Jessica’s deterioration? Is she the victim of a Voodoo curse, or of a mental illness?
Similarly to 1932’s White Zombie, this RKO Picture from producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur is interested in a highly sexualized woman as the victim of zombification, except that here the cause of her “condition” is unclear. There is no Bela Lugosi with staring eyes and a “zombie grip” to be a melodramatic source of evil voodoo magic (as much as the poster would have you think otherwise). Instead, there is a torn up family with mixed motives and ambiguous passions, whose unwillingness to be open and honest about the past causes confusion. No answer is ever given as to why Jessica is in her current state, and this final uncertainty subtly mocks a typically western obsession with securing scientific explanations for every open ended question. The entire film is shrouded in shadows, and this impenetrable darkness represents the void which the audience faces as they realise that there are no final revelations at the end of this story.
As is to be expected, the film’s treatment of Voodoo is naive, and the fact that Mrs Rand is able to so easily fool the island’s inhabitants into believing that she is the voice of a Voodoo priest is bordering on insulting. However, it is I Walked with a Zombie‘s steadfast refusal to rationalize, and therefore neutralize, its walking dead, which raises it above the level of mindless zombie-fare.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ 1/2