I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE


 

 

About the film's story

Canadian nurse, Betsy Connel (Actress Francis Dee), has been hired to travel to the Caribbean to care for the ailing wife of plantation owner, Paul Holland (played by Tom Conway). On board the ship as they are crossing to his home on the island of Saint Sebastion , Paul observes Betsy gazing out across the moonlit waters, and confronts her:

Paul: It's not beautiful ...

Betsy: You read my thoughts Mr. Holland.

Paul: It's easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer. Everything seems beautiful because you don't understand. Those flying fish ... they're not leaping for joy... they're jumping in terror ... bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water... it takes its gleam from millions of dead bodies. [plankton] There's only death and decay here...

Betsy: You can't believe that.

(They look out from the ship and see a falling star)

Paul: Everything good dies here ... even the stars...

 

On her first day off after assuming her duties on the plantation, Betsy meets Wesley, (Paul's younger brother, portrayed by James Ellison), in town and they stop for a drink at a restaurant. There the live music, (provided by Sir Lancelot), infuriates Wesley, as the song they hear describes the sordid past history of his family. What had been merely sordid (the song reveals that Paul's wife, Jessica, had been having an affair with Wesley before she had entered into her catatonic zombie-like state....), becomes downright frightening. Wesley drinks himself into a stupor, leaving Betsy to fend for herself. Sir Lancelot begins the tune anew, but adds new and rather ominous lyrics, some referring to Betsy's relationship with the brothers. The scene abruptly stops when the mother of Paul and Wesley suddenly arrives, cheerfully looking down at her drunken son and volunteering to help get him back on his horse so he can return to the plantation. When Betsy protests that Wesley is in no shape to ride, the mother answers, "Don't worry about a sugar planter.... give him a horse and he'll ride to his own funeral ...."

The play on the meaning behind the word "zombie" is repeated on several levels throughout this film. For example, while Paul Holland's nearly invalid wife is clearly a "zombie" (and this is built upon throughout the film) Paul is shown to also be something of a zombie. Insisting upon an unemotional, official demeanor while dealing with Betsy and while performing his responsibilities as the owner of the plantation, Paul slips and slides in between a warmer, more emotive self and a cold-hearted self. One senses the significance of this shift when he attempts to discuss with Betsy the situation in his family, especially with regards to the relationship between himself and Wesley. As he elaborates his feelings about this situation, the drums at the "Houmfort," (a place where the local voodoo worshippers assemble), suddenly start up. Immediately Paul snaps back into his zombie-like shell, dismissing Betsy coldly and walking off alone.

 

Over time, Betsy begins to feel drawn toward Paul, and in an effort to combat her conflicting feelings, she becomes determined to bring about the recovery of Paul's catatonic wife, Jessica. When medical science fails, Betsy takes Jessica to the Houmfort to see what the voodoo practitoners might be able to achieve. After passing through the plantation's fields, and gaining entrance passed the entranced guard (actor Darby Jones), the two women come upon the steadily building frenzy of a voodoo worship service.

After observing the others there, Betsy stumbles across the secret of the Houmfort: Paul and Wesley's mother hides within a hut that serves as the focus of "divine communication" from the voodoo gods .... only it is a quite human woman who is pretending to be the divine being the worshippers are there to beg advice from.

 

In a later scene, the Doctor and Paul's mother have a confrontation over Jessica's condition. She has become convinced that Jessica is indeed a zombie, and proceeds to explain why. The Doctor replies: "You're a very imaginative woman..."

As the film progresses, it becomes evident that the zombie-like Jessica is not new to the Houmfort ... in fact, there are people among the voodoo worshippers who have been working to get Jessica to come back to them ... permanently.

Wesley becomes convinced, as is his mother, that the cause of Jessica's state is voodoo, while Paul remains adamant that this explanation is superstitious nonsense. Betsy dwells in between these two poles, leaning one way and then the other.

 

From the epilogue of the film:

"O Lord God most holy, deliver them from the bitter pains of eternal death. The woman was a wicked woman, and she was dead in her own life. Yea Lord, dead in the selfishness of her spirit, and the man followed her, her steps led him down to evil, her feet took hold of death. Forgive him, O Lord, who knows the secrets of all hearts. Yea Lord, pity them who are dead, and give peace and happiness to the living.

Conclusion:

Are there zombies in "I Walked with a Zombie?" Or are they people who appear to be zombies to those around them because of cultural pressures and circumstances? As usual, Val Lewton presents material which seems to reinforce both views: Science (which discounts the supernatural) and the supernatural (which discounts the science) each offering solutions to the mysterious goings on.

Film Notes - About The Story - The Cast
Jacques Tourneur
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(Above) from an Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) painting. 

"'For the script, Curt Siodmak all but ignored the original short story and came up with his own idea. Remembering the
painter Oscar Kokoschka, who used to sleep with a life-sized doll, he
developed the story of "a beautiful wife married to a
plantation owner on one of the voodoo islands. The husband knew that she wanted to run away from him. He would not let her go. So he turned her into a zombie. He could continue to have an affair with a beautiful body, but it was like
sleeping with a lifeless doll.'

'...Lewton turned
around and hired another writer who
made the film into a sort of 'Jane Eyre in the Tropics.'"

From Andrew Horn's retrospective on Zombie from the 1988 Berlin Film Festival.

 

"Carre-Four," the zombie which guards the paths leading to the Houm Fort, is apparently named from the French word, carrefour, meaning, literally, "cross road."

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