Release Date: April 21st, 1943 (New York City)
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray
Based on: I Walked With A Zombie by Inez Wallace
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway
RKO Radio Pictures, 69 Minutes
“I thought voodoo was something everyone was frightened of?” – Betsy Connell, “I’m afraid it’s not very frightening. They sing and dance and carry on. And then, as I understand it, one of the gods comes down and speaks through one of the people.” – Paul Holland
Hollywood producer Val Lewton had a pretty good stint at RKO, a studio that was instrumental in the development of film-noir. After Citizen Kane proved to be a financial dud for them, at least initially, RKO wanted to have a branch that focused on B-movies in the same way that Universal had done with their hugely successful monster franchises.
In came Lewton, a man that created some great horror pictures for RKO but unlike Universal, Lewton’s were more adult and more serious films. They were initially just viewed as B-horror pictures in the same vein as Universal’s work but over the years, the Lewton produced horror films at RKO started to get the recognition they deserve as something greater than just makeup and fur slapped on Lon Chaney Jr.
I Walked With A Zombie is the film that Lewton supposedly loved the most out of his horror work for RKO. The quality of this picture also has a lot to do with Lewton picking the right men for the job.
Jacques Tourneur was selected as the director and he did a few other pictures with Lewton for RKO: The Cat People and The Leopard Man, both of which were also really solid films. He would go on to do the film-noir classic Out of the Past and get back into horror with the underrated Night of the Demon and a couple Vincent Price pictures in the 1960s for American International.
The script was penned by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray. Siodmak had already written a bunch of scripts that got turned into monster movies by Universal. So Lewton grabbing him was probably a good way to try and emulate Universal’s success for RKO. Plus, Siodmak could write more mature horror features that were smarter than his work in the Universal Monsters franchise.
I Walked With A Zombie is a pretty great film for what it is. It has a sort of film-noir visual allure to it while being in a lush Caribbean setting. Also, it is a zombie movie, albeit not of the modern style, this is a subtle suspense thriller that has voodoo zombies (my favorite kind of zombie, actually) and is more of a tale about the religious island culture of the West Indies.
This is a rather short film but that was the norm with these Lewton produced horror flicks. Regardless, the story is solid, well paced and the actors do a good job with the material. Frances Dee feels like a real person in a real situation in a time when acting tended to be overly dramatic, especially in the horror genre.
I like this film a lot and it was cool discovering it now, as I got to see it without nostalgia playing a factor. Lewton, Tourneur and Siodmak turned out a very good picture that unfortunately, not a lot of people know about. But that’s probably because it doesn’t feature famous monsters and it isn’t overtly horror, despite the catchy title.