Film / I Walked with a Zombie

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I Walked with a Zombie is a 1943 film directed by Jacques Tourneur, produced by the master of 1940s horror, Val Lewton. It is a loose adaptation of Jane Eyre.

Betsy Cornell (Frances Dee) is a nurse who is hired by sugar plantation owner Paul Holland to come to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian care for his invalid wife Jessica. After Betsy first meets the staring, shuffling Jessica, she is told that a spinal cord injury robbed Jessica of all volition and ability to control her actions. However, Betsy soon hears of a far darker, scarier explanation for Jessica's condition. The explanation involves Jessica's affair with Paul's half-brother Wesley, and an application of the ancient rite of voodoo...


Tropes:

  • Artistic License Medicine: "Portions of her spinal cord were burnt out" by a fever, which has left Jessica in a catatonic state. Spinal cord injuries, of course, do not affect cognition. They do affect movement, but Jessica can walk just fine.
  • Betty and Veronica: Betsy and Jessica.
  • Byronic Hero: Paul Rand. Lampshaded by his half-brother Wesley who sarcastically refers to him as such.
  • Brutally Honest: Played with. Betsy believes Paul to be this, but he himself acknowledges that he was brusque to her (and Jessica earlier) because he wanted to hurt them.
  • Canada, Eh?: The film opens in Canada with Betsy being interviewed for a nursing job in St. Sebastian. A nearby window shows that it is (naturally) snowing, and mention of sunshine and palm trees convinces Betsy to accept the job.
  • Cat Scare: Provided by an owl that hoots loudly and scares the bejesus out of Betsy.
  • Femme Fatale: Played with. Mrs. Rand believes Jessica to have been this, claiming she deliberately used her beauty to destroy her family. However, both Wesley and Paul claim that Paul's verbal abuse and coldness made her turn to Wesley.
  • Hollywood Voodoo: A notable quasi-subversion for making something like a good-faith baseline attempt to understand and depict the actual religion, tossing terms like "houngan" and "hounfort" into the conversation, and even - astonishingly, for the time and milieu - deciding that it's NOT a Religion of Evil, but merely a power around with which one should not screw. Still has zombies and voodoo dolls, though.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Betsy loves Paul Rand but believing he still loves his wife, she takes her to a voodoo ceremony to try to cure her.
  • Jungle Drums: Used to summon the worshippers to the voodoo ceremony.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: Sort of, as a zombified Jessica is kept in the home.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It is unclear if the voodoo practitioners have real powers as Wesley and Mrs. Rand believe, or if they simply use power of suggestion as Paul argues.
  • Mama Bear: An unfortunate example, as Mrs. Rand dealt with the Love Triangle between Jessica and her sons by turning Jessica into a zombie.
  • Mighty Whitey: The head voodoo priestess turns out to be...Mrs. Rand, who has found voodoo an effective tool to control the natives (although her intentions are benign, as she just wants them to take their medicine and boil their drinking water.)
  • Nave Newcomer: Betsy arriving in the Caribbean and learning way too much about voodoo.
    • She is also painfully ignorant of St. Sebastian's past history of slavery at first.
  • Posthumous Character: Jessica is a zombie but her pre-zombie motivations are much discussed.
  • Recycled In Space: Jane Eyre in the Caribbean! With voodoo!
  • Sassy Black Woman: Alma, the maid at the Rand home.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Betsy.
  • Suicide by Sea: An ambiguous example, depending on whether or not Wesley is acting of his own volition, or being controlled by the voodoo priest, when he walks into the ocean with Jessica's body.
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: Wesley and Betsy sit down at a cafe table and almost immediately hear a ballad being sung about the brothers' feud and the affliction of Mrs Holland, apparently by coincidence. The singer's reappearance in the next scene, however, implies that this was not such a coincidence after all...
  • Title Drop: The first line of dialogue, delivered by Betsy's narration.
  • Voodoo Doll: Eventually the voodoo practitioners lure Jessica to them by creating a Jessica voodoo doll, and pulling it with a string. This causes Zombie Jessica to walk to them.
  • Voodoo Zombie: Until George Romero invented the idea of the shuffling, flesh-eating monster zombie with Night of the Living Dead, this was what a "zombie" was. Namely, either a recently dead person or a comatose person rendered into the slave of a master by voodoo magic.
  • Woman in White: Jessica's flowing white robes make her all the spookier.
  • Your Cheating Heart: In the back story, Jessica had an affair with Wesley.
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