Producer Val Lewton’s second film for RKO took two different inspirations that were pretty different. First was an article by Inez Wallace and the other was Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Despite that pedigree, this film got one of those “get ’em in the theater” titles that was forced on Lewton by RKO.
The movie starts with nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) explaining how she walked with a zombie, as if you weren’t already sold. She’s on the island of Saint Sebastian to care for the wife of sugar plantation owner — and descendant of slave traders — Paul Holland (Tom Conway). The woman she is to nurse to health, Jessica, has had her spinal cord irreparably damaged by a serious illness. She no longer has the will to live or do anything for herself.
On a day off, Betsy sees Holland’s half brother Wesley at a bar. As he drinks himself into oblivion, the calypso singer Sir Lancelot uses the song “Shame and Scandal in the Family” as exposition, explaining that Jessica and Wesley were once in love, but Paul wouldn’t allow it. Then, she was struck by the fever that for all purposes ended her life. Meanwhile, Paul blames himself for his wife’s condition and if that isn’t enough, Betsy falls for him and decides that the best way to win his heart is to bring his wife back, whether by insulin shot or voodoo.
If that doesn’t shock you, this will: the voodoo priest of the island is really Paul and Wesley’s doctor mother, using the religions of the island to convince the locals to use modern medicine in the guise of magic. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from believing that Jessica is one of the walking dead. There’s one last surprise. The doctor believes that she was really possessed by voodoo and has made her daughter-in-law into a zombie.
The end of this film, as Wesley wanders into the water carrying his true love’s dying body as a voodoo spirit follows them into the sea. It’s mesmerizing, as is the spirit of doomed love that hands over this movie.
Director Jacques Tourneur was a master of the black and white horror film. I’d also recommend his movies Cat People, The Leopard Man and Curse of the Demon.