What could have been an unimaginative retread of Jane Eyre is instead an immersive daydream of a film, all thanks to Jacques Tourneur’s superb eye for framing shadows and enhancing his story’s psychological unease. As this is a very early zombie film, the ghoulish flesh-eaters of George A. Romero have not yet been introduced. What we have here instead is a beautiful woman without a mind (her doctor claims a tropical fever burned it away). She walks aimlessly around, staring vacantly; her husband hires a nurse from Canada to look after her, but it looks like nothing can be done to bring her back. Well, maybe. For the Caribbean island they live on is rife with voodoo practitioners, and who is to say their ways of healing are no better than traditional remedies?
I Walked with a Zombie is startlingly enlightened in its depictions of race compared to other films of the period. Though the black characters are not exactly the most developed, the film does not give into easy exoticism, either. The history of the island becomes a silent specter that watches over the proceedings, constantly reminding us of the colonial miseries that accompanied slave ships and dispossessed bodies. It is no coincidence that the wealthiest planter family is now afflicted with its own symbol of dispossession: a seraphic beauty emptied of all consciousness. Whether it is revenge for a bloody past, or truly a malady brought on by cruel nature, is anyone’s guess. Tourneur allows our imaginations to run wild, and in the dark recesses of St. Sebastian, where the jungle drums beat out their percussive allurements, it’s all too easily done.