I’ve been meaning to see this since, ah… I was 16 or 17? I had gotten a box of B-Movie Poster Postcards and this one went on the wall fairly quickly. We were also watching Cat People in one of my high school film class’s, and my teacher mentioned he had seen I Walked with a Zombie at a local film festival. They’re similar in that they are horror movies which are not actually about the horror. The problem is, I’m not sure what this was about.
If you want to get all Freudian, the “manifest content” is that Betsy (Frances Dee) is a nurse sent to work in St. Antigua for the sick wife of a sugar plantation owner. She arrives, smitten with her employer Paul Holland (Tom Conway), who believes that they live at a sad place. And who wouldn’t in his position? His wife Jessica was just about to run off with his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) when she caught a fever and became a zombie.
They continue to bring up the race issue between the rich, Christian plantation family and the black population who participate in Voodoo rituals. Paul doesn’t hide that the island had a history of slavery and that the population there isn’t at all happy. With a conflict between religions and ideologies, even upon the medical treatment for the zombie wife. So you have that, which is quite probably the lead “latent content” of the movie.
You’ve got the same classic B-Movie situation within the setting, where everything has been made very cheaply, although with considerable artistic skill. Shadows are used to a beautiful extent, usually when Betsy has to run in the night, either to make sure that Jessica doesn’t run off or to find out more information about Voodoo.
Betsy believes that Paul’s wife might be cured by taking her to a Voodoo ceremony, her motives in this being that she wants to see him happy again. Paul’s mother, the sort of uber-matriarch character for the island, discourages this, though she uses Voodoo for her own purposes.
There’s some stock character-actions working with these characters, like Betsy playing the Selfless Nurse, both in risking her health by taking care of Jessica, but also sacrificing her own happiness for the “happiness” of the man who loves her. Jessica ends up coming off as this useless character, but it comes as a result of her infidelity. The further back I get from the film, the more I think it’s a critique on female sexuality or concepts of female roles– often Betsy or Jessica are criticized for being “too beautiful” or at least thinking they are beautiful. Betsy is the heroine because she is so self-sacrificing, but the men stand around being very passive, with no clear ideas of who is the hero and who is the villain.
So, a fun short little creeper of a movie, but not something I’d write home about.