Producer Val Lewton was put in charge of RKO’s B movie horror unit in the 1940’s. He had free rein but he had three rules to follow. Each film had to come in under a $150,000 budget, each had to be under 75 minutes long and Lewton’s supervisors would supply the film titles. From there Lewton was free to do as he pleased. The first of these films was the brilliant Cat People in 1942. It was quickly followed in 1943 with I Walked with a Zombie.
A young Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) arrives on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. She’s been hired to look after a plantation owner’s (Tom Conway) sick wife Jessica (Christine Gordon). Jessica apparently contracted a tropic fever that has left her catatonic. She now wanders around in dazed state. Dee travels the island on her day off with Conway’s half-brother James Ellison. In a bar she hears a song about Conway and Ellison fighting over Gordon. Ellison had fallen in love with Gordon and was going to run away with her before she was struck down with “fever”.
As Dee becomes closer to Conway, she decides to try and cure Gordon. After trying science and failing, she takes Gordon to see the local voodoo witchdoctor and is shocked to discover that it’s Conway and Ellison’s mother. She’s informed that there is no cure for Gordon. The natives all think that Gordon is a zombie and soon they start trying to take action against her.
What makes Val Lewton’s horror movies work is the ambiguity of it. Is the wife a zombie or just catatonic? Is it caused by voodoo or is it just jungle fever? It’s also good to see a movie where zombies are mindless slaves and not mindless flesh-eating undead. Under the skill of director Jacques Tourneur, the film is moody and atmospheric, an excellent movie.