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Warner Home Video presents
I Walked with a Zombie / The Body Snatcher (1943-1945)

"Any similarity to actual persons, living, dead or possessed, is purely coincidental." `
- From the copyright notice to I Walked with a Zombie

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: October 11, 2005

Stars: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell
Other Stars: Edith Barrett, Christine Gordon, James Bell, Darby Jones, Edith Atwater, Russell Wade, Sharyn Moffett, Rita Corday
Director: Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, zombies)
Run Time: 02h:26m:36s
Release Date: October 04, 2005
UPC: 053939727029
Genre: horror


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- A-B-C+ A-

DVD Review

Producer Val Lewton's horror movies for RKO in the mid-1940s were always rather unusual. This disc offers a pairing of his films that center on corpses, both walking of their own volition and moved about by others, as the case may be. But they're far more than just horrors, and tend more toward intelligent essays on guilt and the awful secrets that the main characters are trying to hide.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is Lewton's second feature, and teams him again with director Jacques Tourneur. This moody tale of voodoo centers on nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), who is brought to the West Indies isle of St. Sebastian, to care for Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), a near-catatonic. Her husband Paul (Tom Conway) and his mother Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett) operate a sugar mill on the island, along with Paul's half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison). While Nurse Connell begins to develop romantic feelings for Paul, she also succumbs to the lure of the islands and tries to get the local voodoo practitioners to help Mrs. Holland. But instead they come to believe that she is one of their zombies, and soon they are attempting to reclaim her as one of their own. Or was that Connell's goal in the first place?

There are only a few really horrific scenes in the picture, most notably the assault of the lanky zombie Camefour (Darby Jones), who bears a ghastly and unearthly aspect; much of his odyssey is depicted just through the sight and often the sound of his shuffling feet, making for a sequence of dread that outdoes the more explicit brain-munching zombies of George Romero and others. Unfortunately, the matters leading up to this are fairly dull fare, despite being visually attractive. Mrs. Holland in particular is an intriguing figure, a veritable blank slate but iconic in her movement in an impossibly flowing white gown as she wanders the island. There are of course many family secrets on the island, including Oedipal jealousies and the mystery of what caused Mrs. Holland's state in the first place. It's also notable as one of the few films of the period to treat the zombie seriously, and not just as a horror gimmick. Despite the slow going, the finale and the visuals along the way are well worth it.

After the financial disaster of The Curse of the Cat People (1944), RKO wanted to make sure that Lewton used a bankable star in the next film. Lewton not only got one, Boris Karloff, but also scored Bela Lugosi in a supporting role. In The Body Snatcher (1945), from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, guilty secrets come to the forefront again. Set in 1831 Edinburgh, young medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) is taken in as an assistant to eminent anatomist Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Cabman John Gray (Karloff) supplies the team with cadavers, both fresh and far too fresh. But when Fettes objects and MacFarlane is being plagued by Gray, it soon becomes apparent that the resurrection artist holds a mysterious secret over the doctor's head. Lugosi has a somewhat small role as MacFarlane's servant, who learns of Gray's trade and attempts to blackmail him.

This picture holds up quite well, thanks to some tour de force lead performances. Karloff is far more animated than usual as the grave robber, infusing Gray with both a jolly and sadistic streak that makes him a formidable foe. Henry Daniell, one of my favorite supporting actors, has to restrain himself a bit more than usual as Dr. MacFarlane, but he credibly gives a tormented performance full of both bitterness and pain; he clearly means well but compulsively finds himself wanting more corpses to practice his trade upon; in parallel, Gray seems to take almost a perverse pleasure in his task and might just be happy to dispense with pay for his killing. It's a bit unfortunate that Lugosi gets such a small part, but this is historically important as their last of many teamings; their one significant scene together is a terrific one.

There are several great moments that surely must have stretched the production code, including the ghastly finale that still renders a chill. There's also a memorable moment where a woman singing on the street is heard offscreen; Gray is off the screen himself and then suddenly the singing is cut short; the implication is highly effective. The main problem I have with the picture is that although the cast is speaking a Scots idiom, they're doing so with thoroughly midwestern accents for the most part; when one minor player essays a Highland burr it's fairly jarring and reminds us just how much the other actors are cheating.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: I Walked with a Zombie is transferred pretty well, though it is a bit sparkly in places and fairly contrasty early on. There is some unrepaired damage, including a fairly nasty tear late on and plenty of splotching and speckles. The Body Snatcher is in better shape, barring some beaten-up stock footage at the beginning, but it seems to have been transferred much too dark. A lot of the shadow detail vanishes into blackness and there's a rather limited palette of greys, with virtually no clean white. This is a dark picture, but not this dark. A couple of isolated shots look somewhat dupey and soft, but that may be a fault of the original elements.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Both films have a fair amount of hiss and noise, but Zombie features some nicely booming voodoo drums that are penetrating. The dialogue is clear on both films and the shortcomings are mostly attributable to the age and cheap production.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 44 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Japanese, Spanish with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) film historians Kim Newman and Steve Jones; 2) director Robert Wise and writer Steve Haberman
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Both films feature a full-length commentary. The Body Snatcher features director Robert Wise in an audio interview (not screen-specific), who makes up somewhat for not being included on the Cat People disc by discussing both Curse of the Cat People and this film in the context of his very first directorial work, under the tutelage of Lewton. He has plenty of stories and was still very sharp in his 90s (Wise died earlier in 2005). He also discusses some Lewton projects that never came about, including an adaptation of Carmilla, which would become fodder for the Hammer Studios in the 1970s. The last half hour or so is filled by film historian Steve Haberman, who provides additional information that's seldom duplicative. I Walked with a Zombie features a commentary with historians Kim Newman and Steve Jones that's quite conversational and entertaining to listen to. Each film includes its trailer, which seem to be from the original releases. The dupey nature of The Body Snatcher trailer indicates how much sharper the film is on this disc than it could have been.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

Whether your dead walk or you have to cart them away yourselves, there's a lot to like in this atmospheric pair of Val Lewton classics, including one of Karloff's most thoroughly enjoyable performances.

 


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