Plot: A young woman named Betsy (Frances Dee) has just taken a position on a sugar plantation in the Caribbean, serving as the caretaker for the comatose wife of the owner, Paul (Tom Conway). The warm, beautiful landscape is a drastic change from her home in Canada, but as she learns before she even reaches the island, just because something is beautiful, doesn’t rule out potential danger. She learns of the island’s past in the slave trade and soon meets Wesley (James Ellison), Paul’s brother who has some rather curt comments about his relative. He seems to think Paul is the reason that his sister-in-law is comatose, so he warns Betsy to remain aware. When Betsy finds Paul’s wife Jessica (Christine Gordon) roaming the house at night, she is terrified and confused, but as it turns out, her zombie-like state is well known. Between voodoo, tropical fevers, and the dark hearts of the residents, the island is home to a number of dangers. Can Betsy find some answers before it is too late for her as well?
Entertainment Value: Although I Walked with a Zombie has the feel of a b movie, it is so much richer and more powerful than a simple horror tale about island voodoo. The narrative weaves in some intense social issues, including the legacy of suffering left in the wake of slavery, which is obvious in all aspects of island life here. This is handled in serious, respectful ways and never used as melodrama or shock value, quite a noble and impressive approach. The movie doesn’t go too deeply into the subject, but it makes some clear and evident points, including a heartbreaking moment about crying when a baby is born, as it is born into the misery of a slave’s life. This movie also touches on religion, both the island’s voodoo roots and the Christians who arrived later, but again, this is all dealt with in serious fashion. But even outside of the social issues, the movie boasts some excellent atmosphere and beautiful visuals, including a few scenes that are iconic and classic genre moments. The jungle walk and voodoo ritual are the highlights of the movie, but it has consistently effective mood and tension, delivering a well crafted experience throughout.
The cast here is rock solid, approaching the material with a serious tact and making the most of the material. Tom Conway and James Ellison do lean toward more b movie inspired turns however, with performances that aren’t terrible, but aren’t as dialed in as their costars. This is a slight issue since they’re in prominent roles, but there is so much that goes right in I Walked with a Zombie that their less than ideal efforts are more than balanced out. Frances Dee is a highlight, with a performance that conveys the eerie unease of a woman in strange, unfamiliar environment, surrounded by elements she doesn’t fully understand. Jacques Tourneur helms the picture and his style is more than obvious here, as the movie drips with tension and dread, thanks to the atmosphere and visuals involved. I am sure some overlook I Walked with a Zombie because it seems like a low rent b movie at first glace, but this is a powerful horror classic and not a movie to be passed by.