The Best Horror Movie of 1943: I Walked With a Zombie

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The Best Horror Movie of 1943: I Walked With a Zombie

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

In terms of sheer volume, these next few years are some of the most prolific in horror history, at least before the advent of home video. It really seems at this point as if Americans were escaping into the movie theater as a way to drown out the battle raging in Europe and Asia, and a lot of the time what they were seeing were horror flicks.

1943 offers a good variety of chillers in a plethora of styles. You’ve got a few straight-up sequels, like the underwhelming Son of Dracula, which saw Lon Chaney Jr. (it’s hard to like him as anything but the Wolf Man) stepping into the role of Dracula’s progeny “Alucard,” a trope subsequently passed down through the decades, all the way to the likes of Castlevania. Likewise, there are remakes here, including a big-budget (and color!) take on Phantom of the Opera, which stars the former Invisible Man, Claude Rains, in the title role of the acid-scarred Phantom. The Seventh Victim is certainly a contender as well, another Val Lewton-produced, RKO noir-chiller with sultry undertones, playing a bit like a primordial version of Rosemary’s Baby.

From a populist standpoint, though, 1943 is perhaps most significant for the birth of the “monster mash” via Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The follow-up to the lower-budget Ghost of Frankenstein is a somewhat unwieldy fusion of a Wolf Man story and a Frankenstein one—the creature is played by Béla Lugosi this time and looks particularly awkward—but much more screen time is spent on the former rather than the latter. Indeed, for the first half of its runtime, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man plays like the closest thing to a straight-up The Wolf Man sequel that Universal would ever produce, and it’s a pretty competent one at that, with classically spooky atmosphere and a sympathetic antagonist in the form of Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot, who just wants to find a way to permanently die this time. Of course, given that title, what audiences really wanted to see was two of screendom’s most famous monsters engage in a titanic battle to the death, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man does deliver, albeit in its closing moments. It’s not exactly Iron Man vs. Captain America, but in a very real way, this film laid the groundwork for pitting valuable pieces of IP against each other within the confines of a “shared universe.” Infinity War and Endgame might never have existed without it.

1943 Honorable Mentions: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Ghost Ship, Son of Dracula, The Seventh Victim, The Leopard Man, Phantom of the Opera

The Film: I Walked With a Zombie
Director: Jacques Tourneur

Val Lewton’s second collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur arguably manages to outdo the more famous Cat People, delivering a dreamy horror story that is astoundingly serious-minded and thoughtful in its examination of the powers of belief, free will, emotional pain, historical subjugation and the sins of our ancestors. It combines the beautiful black-and-white cinematography of Tourneur with a story partially cribbed from the bones of Jane Eyre to create a work that feels entirely unique, suffused with death and mystery. As one character says, looking out at the sea: “That luminous water. It takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies, the glitter of putrescence.”

There had been “zombie” films in the U.S. market as early as 1932’s White Zombie with Béla Lugosi, but they treated the mysticism of the Caribbean as an exotic joke, not to be believed or trifled in by sober, modern white folk. I Walked With a Zombie approaches these belief systems from a very different perspective, not only depicting them with surprising accuracy and dignity, but considering how those beliefs could be co-opted by the white man as one more element of control over the lives of the island inhabitants. Although the setting of the film is a post-slavery island of Saint Sebastian, the film’s constant visual motifs of bondage and servitude never allow the viewer to forget the horrors of their not-so-distant past. From the fact that the town is centered around the figurehead of a former slave ship, to a white doctor’s seemingly well-intentioned use of voodoo traditions to instill modern scientific teaching into the community, the film adopts a waveringly accusatorial tone.

The story revolves around a young nurse named Betsy, who is brought to the island to be the caretaker of a catatonic woman whose illness and potential madness have stripped her of any sense of free will. It contains mystery elements, with several characters giving Betsy very different accounts of how her patient ended up in such a state, while always subtly implying a supernatural world of voodoo gods and Great Powers hiding just under the surface of the island’s society, away from the prying eyes of outsiders. How deep Betsy is willing to immerse herself in that underbelly will depend on just how badly she wants to help her patient … and how badly she wants to impress her handsome employer.

As in Cat People, director Tourneur and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt deliver a gorgeously macabre palette of images despite their small budget. The iconic, bug-eyed zombie visage of the enforcer “Carrefour” is the kind of image that must have haunted the dreams of patrons for years to come, but the lasting power of I Walked With a Zombie are in its quiet, wider shots, like the nightmarish, lanky profile of Carrefour standing stock-straight in a darkened, wind-swept corn field, or Betsy leading her pliable patient through the midnight cane fields, toward the pounding drums of a voodoo ceremony. Truly creepy imagery abounds.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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