Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943) probably holds the place of honor as the most ludicrously titled great film ever made. It was a follow-up to Cat People (1942) and RKO Pictures wanted a suitably horrific title—even if what Tourneur and producer Val Lewton were giving them was essentially Jane Eyre in the Tropics (well, that with some voodoo trimmings, which I believe Charlotte Brontë neglected to incorporate into her novel). The premise finds a nurse, Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), coming to the island of San Sebastian as caretaker of the nearly catatonic Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), whose bitter husband, Paul (Tom Conway), fills in for Rochester. The horror element is there, but it’s handled with a subtlety (most of the time) that’s actually poetic.
In most respects, the film is an improvement over Cat People, though it doesn’t really have anything in it that quite attains the levels of sheer terror in that film’s “swimming pool” scene, famous shock-effect “bus” scene or the late-night encounter with the “monster” in an office building. The closest I Walked With a Zombie comes is Frances Dee’s first encounter with her patient and the titular walk, but these are less shocking than deeply unsettling. Almost as unsettling in its own way is the scene where Calypso singer Sir Lancelot sings the backstory—only finishing it in a wholly sinister manner for Betsy’s benefit once Paul’s younger half-brother Wesley (James Ellison) passes out from drinking. All in all—and while it wisely does have a payoff—it’s a film that works by creating a chilling atmosphere.
As a peculiar side note, the film spawned a decidedly non-Val Lewton comedy/horror sequel, the delightfully titled Zombies on Broadway (1945), which is partly set on San Sebastian and incorporates the imposing Darby Jones as the same zombie (under a different name) and Sir Lancelot (complete with a new version of his song) into the narrative. It also boasts a mad scientist (Bela Lugosi), RKO’s unasked for answer to Abbott and Costello (Wally Brown and Alan Carney) and a mischievous monkey for what can only be called greater Hollywoodization—and simian value.