Before “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” before “World War Z,” “The Walking Dead,” or even “Night of the Living Dead,” there was a zombie movie based on “Jane Eyre.” Because “I Walked With A Zombie” (1943 dir. Jacques Tourner) is B.R. (Before Romero), it bears very little resemblance to modern zombie mythology. Zombies in movies B.R. were mindless, near-dead but not rotting, and conjured by witchcraft and voodoo, a manifestation of white fear of the “other” in Hollywood-ized black magic. “I Walked With A Zombie” is a B-movie marvel produced by Val Lewton (also responsible for “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Cat People”) that manages to be chilling if not scary, and spins the English Gothic atmosphere of “Jane Eyre” into a modern macabre set in the Caribbean.
“I Walked With A Zombie” is perhaps better explained as inspired by “Jane Eyre,” rather than based on it. While it melodramatically builds on the Gothic tone of Charlotte Bronte’s classic, the more complicated themes of class and gender equality are left for other adaptations to explore. Like Jane Eyre, the heroine Betsy Connell is a servant, actually a nurse. Like Jane, Betsy finds employment in an unfamiliar place, a tropical island called St. Sebastian. There, Betsy meets and falls in love with her brooding employer, Mr. Holland. Betsy, like Jane, hears strange noises coming from an unknown part of the mansion, and like Jane she goes to investigate. However, this is where the stories diverge. For, rather than the lunatic Madwoman in the Attic, Betsy finds Jessica Holland, a wasting wraith-like woman in flowing white who has been in a walking trance since succumbing to a strange tropical disease. The rest of the plot revolves around the question of whether Jessica is a zombie, how she fell under the sway of voodoo, and if the spell can be undone.
What saves the increasingly schlocky movie is the atmosphere. Music, location, and lighting come together to turn the low-budget film into a tropical Gothic low on scares but high on intensity. The island of St. Sebastian, named after the twice-martyred saint, is a maze of sugar cane, half-lit plantations, and roaring surf. Adding to the tension is the fact that there is no score, just the far-off beating of drums. Unfortunately, after all of this fantastic set up, the pay off is kind of weak. The voodoo rituals shown are corny and slightly racist, and quickly passed over in favor of the less interesting love triangle. However, the final scene is worthy of any zombie melodrama (a genre that quickly needs to be invented): as the light fades, Jessica is carried into the ocean, her lover following her to his death.
Despite its flaws, “I Walked With A Zombie” is a must-see for those interested in the early origins of zombie movies, or those who want a lesson on how to make a good horror movie on a low budget. The plot is tacky but brilliantly timed, and the music and lighting are fantastic. Though “I Walked With A Zombie” borrows from “Jane Eyre,” it fails to capture its nuances, but the film succeeds in mimicking the darker tone of the book. In the end, “I Walked With A Zombie” is much like its titular zombie Jessica, beautiful to look at but otherwise aimless.