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3 January 2012

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

"The characters and events depicted in this photoplay are fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living, dead or possessed, is purely coincidental."
I start the New Year with a quick review of a black and white flick I watched recently called 'I Walked with a Zombie'. This one's almost 70 years old! Wahay!

Check out those eyes... Carre-Four
I Walked with a Zombie, RKO 1943

The BBC have been showing some great old films over the Christmas break. This was the second in a pair of RKO horror films I spotted that were directed by Jacques Tourneur. Jacques was French (as if you couldn't have guessed) and seems to have been at his best with more unusual subject matter. The other film I spotted of his was 'Cat People' which came out in 1942. That's on my to-watch list for later. :-)

I Walked with a Zombie, RKO 1943

Let me start by saying that this isn't really a zombie film of the sort that I usually watch. 'I Walked with a Zombie' is about Voodoo rather than infected people running all over the place. There's no gore and let's face it, no zombies either, but more on this in a little while...

First a quick diversion...

I got into a discussion with my son this week about Star Wars. He was desperate to spend some of his Christmas money and so we were out and about on the hunt for Star Wars figures. In one of our many discussions on the subject he introduced a term I hadn't heard before; He talked about 'classic' Star Wars, referring to the original 6 films. What?!?! He told me that he didn't want 'classic' star wars figures. No... he wanted Clone Troopers. What?!?! Just you wait until I get my hands on you Lucas! You've ruined everything!

And from 'classic' Star Wars let's return to 'classic' zombies. Ah... do you see what I did there?

Frances Dee looking every bit the nurse
I Walked with a Zombie, RKO 1943

The film starts with nurse Betsy Connell (played by Frances Dee) accepting a new job on the tiny Carribean island of Saint Sebastian. The trip from snowy Canadia to the sweltering tropics takes her physically and metaphysically to a different world... into a world of mystery... cue thunderclap...

The first mystery is who she's working for and exactly what she's supposed to be doing. Our Betsy is an easy going, trusting character to say the least. She's not going to let details like these get in the way of a good adventure.

Her employers turn out to be the dysfunctional Holland family. The Hollands are rich plantation owners who gave the location of the film, Port Holland, its name. They are responsible for starting the plantations and bringing slaves to the island to work the plantations. And with the slaves comes the spectre of Voodoo... cue thunderclap...

I say... it's Tom Conway!
I Walked with a Zombie, RKO 1943

Betsy's job is to look after comatosed Jessica Holland (played by Christine Gordon), wife of Paul Holland (played by Tom Conway). Before I forget... check out Paul Holland's moustache. Great work Tom!
Betsy: Nobody told me Mrs Holland was a... mental case
Paul: A mental case!
Betsy: I'm sorry...
Paul: Why should you be... My wife is a metal case!
I like straight-talking!

Unfortunately Jessica Holland has been affected by a tropical disease that has left her virtually vegetable. She doesn't talk or respond to stimulus, but is still capable of wandering around and getting into scrapes. She's not dead, which stops her being a zombie by today's definition. But this film wasn't made today and thankfully the locals aren't too picky with their definitions. They recognise the tell-tale halmarks of being a zombie which for them is actually less about being dead and more about being possessed... cue thunderclap...

Voodoo dancing
I Walked with a Zombie, RKO 1943

The story follows Betsy's attempts to learn more about the island and the Hollands. She falls for Paul and tries to save Jessica whilst all the while the noose of Voodoo tightens around the situation... cue thunderclap...

Okay... no more thunderclaps.

It's a bit of a slow tale when all's said and done. The acting is typical of what you might expect for the era and in some ways the story is too, although the Zombie angle must have been pretty unique at the time. I did find my attention wandering somewhere in the middle. The whole Voodoo or hoodoo debate is interesting but the scriptwriters leave that question hanging at the end and for me it makes it less of a satisfying finale. I think they could have closed off with a bit more penache. Saying that, it's not a disaster.

Take note Google:
Roky Erickson invented +1
Give the man his money!

One last thing: It's not in the film, but check out Roky Erickson's song 'I Walked with a Zombie'. It was obviously inspired by the film. There are a number of covers floating about, but none can hold a candle to Roky's original.

Let's sum up. On the Triple-B I'm going to squeeze the words 'mental case' casually into conversation 3 times and let's see if anyone notices. This film is worth a watch, but maybe only the one... Don't be too disappointed if you don't get the chance... Mental case! Mental case!

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