I Walked With a Zombie, 1943, directed by Jacques Tourneur
I Walked with a Zombie is one of the earliest zombie movies, made in the 1940s by producer Val Lewton. Lewton is famous for taking a very different approach to horror films than Universal Pictures did with Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, etc. Lewton emphasized the psychological and personal elements, leaving ambiguous whether certain events, transformations, etc., were caused by natural or supernatural means.
The story here follows the adventure of Betsy, a Canadian nurse who accepts a job taking care of a woman on the Caribbean island of San Sebastien. She is the "I" of the movie's title. As she departs her snowy home for the lush tropical island, she discovers that something strange has happened to her ward, Jessica. A while back, she came down with a terrible fever that has left her in a mentally vacant state (yes, she is the "zombie" of the movie's title). Their first meeting is harrowing for Betsy, as she follows some unearthly moans into a tower and is cornered by the shambling, persistent Jessica. Eventually Betsy lets out a scream that draws help to her.
Help consists of Jessica's husband Paul Holland, a sugar plantation owner, and his half-brother/ne'er do well Wesley Rand. Their mother also lives on the island, working at an infirmary helping the poor. It is slowly hinted at that Jessica's state may not have been an ordinary fever and many of the locals consider her to be a zombie. Also complicating matters is the romantic overtures of Holland toward Betsy and the implications of a past love triangle between Jessica and the two brothers.
The movie is well directed by Jacques Tourneur, whose most famous movie is another Lewton collaboration, Cat People. He makes great use of light and shadow, and especially good use of music. The music is partly a score that emphasizes dramatic or horrific moments, but there's also the music in the story: the drums of the voodoo ceremonies, heard in the distance at first, and the song locals have made up about the love triangle.
Another aspect of the film I appreciated was the respectful tone it took towards the voodoo beliefs of the people on the island. Neither sensationalistic nor exploitational, the practices are taken at face value and not overdone (like the native of Kong Island in either the original or most recent versions of King Kong). Whether the credit for Jessica becoming a zombie is due to the supernatural or the psychological or merely the medical result of the fever is left ambiguous.
I definitely recommend this film as a good, non-gory early zombie horror that will give you the creeps through stimulating your interest.
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