Arguably the best pre-Romero film involving the living dead, 1943's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE will no doubt surprise (and possibly disappoint) viewers more acquainted with the visceral approach of flesh-eating ghouls. Based on a reportedly true article with Inez Wallace, producer Val Lewton shifted its focus to a JANE EYRE-styled drama (with notable influence by both Henry James's TURN OF THE SCREW and Daphne du Maurier's REBECCA). And while it might not please those looking for a gut-munching good time, director Jacques Tourneur crafted a film with beautifully Gothic atmosphere that still holds up today.
The premise, about a nurse (Frances Dee) who travels to a sugar plantation in the West Indies to care for the owner's fever-stricken wife, doesn't sound promising for a horror film; in fact, the overt supernatural elements, or even the mention of zombies themselves, don't show up until the mid-point. Yet you can feel them in the very fabric of the film right from the deceptively-tranquil opening, thanks to Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray's tightly-wound screenplay. Also setting WALKED apart from other horror movies is the altruism that fuels the story; as Dee falls in love with Conway, she resorts to voodoo to find a cure for his wife (which, unbeknownst to her, is the cause of the condition in the first place), a fascinating mirror of the jealousy motivating such films as WHITE ZOMBIE.
Perhaps most surprising is WALKED's treatment of the minorities in its cast, eschewing the racist undertones or insensitive humor found in movies like KING OF THE ZOMBIES, etc. Here, whites and blacks speak to each other as equals, despite the latter's subservient position; Tourneur never overemphasizes it, but it's a refreshing change nonetheless.
But the film's greatest strength is easily its luminous black-and-white photography, which makes even the most mundane scenes wrought with tension (no surprise that Tourneur would go on to direct some of the most accomplished film noirs, such as OUT OF THE PAST). The climax, as Dee infiltrates the voodoo rituals of the locals, is the culmination of the movie's sustained anticipation, a sequence of subtle yet powerful imagery. Who could forget the haunting visuals of the dead goat hanging from a tree, or the zombified Darby Jones standing vigil in the sugar cane?
A classic, not to be missed.