I have a bit of a mixed record with films related to both Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. I enjoyed The Leopard Man immensely, but found both Isle of the Dead and Cat People lacking. Luckily, this atmospheric little movie is better than those I found lacking, and perhaps even better than The Leopard Man, and I Walked with a Zombie ended up being quite a solid film.
Not to over-stress this, but a big part of that would be the setting, being a mansion that is surrounded by the encroaching jungle. The open porches which are just yards away from the jungle and it’s wildlife, not to mention the hot jungle air blowing over the grounds – what I can I say, I find it enchanting (the same way I find houses surrounded by swamps enchanting – look no further than The Alligator People for that).
White Zombie might be a better demonstration of the outright horror of zombies and voodoo, and I certainly agree that White Zombie might have more memorable scenes overall, but this is a lot more polished and character-driven, with a large part of the film dealing with the drama between two brothers, their mother, and a zombie wife. And in the middle of it all, a nurse entirely new to the island.
The two brothers are great with their distinctive personalities – James Ellison (of The Undying Monster) as the witty, charming brother and Tom Conway (Cat People and The Seventh Victim) as the oft-somber one. Throw into a mix a brain-dead wife of Conway’s (played by Christine Gordon) that was in a relationship with Ellison, and you have some quality drama that’s actually both intriguing and tragic. Frances Dee playing the main character (with some classy voice-overs, which I appreciated) did a great job too, and her walk – but more on that shortly.
It’s been shortly, so let’s talk about that walk, brahs.
The titular walk with a zombie is one of the best sequences in the movie. It doesn’t last long, but it’s packed with a walk through the jungle, through the sugarcane farm, past a giant black zombie-like homeboi (Darby Jones) – it’s a fantastic time with Dee dragging Gordon along to a voodoo ceremony, with the animals all chirping and hooting. My words can only do so much (and probably not as much as I think), but it’s a great scene, and definitely a high-light of the film.
Not that the rest of I Walked with a Zombie is dull. Despite a lot of the focus being on the family drama as opposed to the voodoo and the zombies, it’s a pretty fun movie, and it’s helped by the fact that it’s also a pretty short film (under an hour-and-ten-minutes). For the atmosphere alone, though, this is well-worth seeing, and the finale too is pretty solid (though an argument could be made it’s somewhat anticlimactic).