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 carelessly 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, it’s paired with the film it 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. It also features North Carolina’s own Anne Jeffries. (The IMDb shows her birthplace as Goldsboro, NC, but residents of Andrews, NC will not only tell you she grew up there, they’ll show you the house.)
There’s no real justification for a movie like Zombies on Broadway, I suppose, but that could be said about so very many films — and those films don’t have Lugosi or a monkey. (Well, most of them don’t.) And none of them such a great title. It’s undeniable that Brown and Carney aren’t very funny or appealing (and this is the high water mark of their screen career). On the other hand, Lugosi has some very funny moments — with and without his simian antagonist — and is suitably menacing when it’s called for. The only problem is there isn’t enough of him, but what there is is choice. Astonishingly, this seems to have served as the inspiration for Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) — and even better title, but a much worse film.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen I Walked with a Zombie and Zombies on Broadway Thursday, Aug. 14, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.