Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse, relates in a voiceover how she once "walked with a zombie."
Betsy is hired to care for the wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway), a sugar plantation owner on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. Saint Sebastian is inhabited by a small white community and descendants of African slaves. On the boat to the island she is warned by her employer that there is nothing but sadness and decay on Saint Sebastian. While being driven to the Holland planatation, the black driver Betsy tells Betsy the story of how the Hollands brought slaves to the island, and that the statue of "Ti-Misery" (Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows) in the courtyard is the figurehead from a slave ship.
That night at dinner, Betsy meets Paul's half-brother and employee, Wesley Rand (James Ellison), who clearly resents Paul. While getting ready for bed, Betsy hears crying. When she investigates, a woman in a white robe walks towards her, her eyes staring. Betsy screams, waking the rest of the household. Paul takes charge of Jessica Holland, the woman Betsy is to care for. The next morning, Dr. Maxwell tells Betsy that Jessica's spinal cord was irreparably damaged by a serious illness, leaving her totally without the willpower to do anything for herself.
On her day off, Betsy encounters Wesley in town. While he drinks himself into a stupor, a calypso singer (Sir Lancelot) sings about how Jessica was going to run away with Wesley, but Paul would not let them go. Then she was struck down by the fever. Betsy meets Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), Paul and Wesley's doctor mother.
That night, at dinner, Paul tries to persuade Wesley to reduce his drinking (at Betsy's suggestion), but he accuses Paul of trying to impress Betsy and of driving Jessica insane in the first place.
Later, Betsy is drawn to the sound of Paul playing the piano. He apologizes for bringing her to the island and admits that he may have been the cause of his wife's condition. Betsy has been falling in love with her moody employer. She determines to make him happy by curing Jessica.
Betsy gets Paul to agree to try a potentially fatal treatment of insulin shock on Jessica, but it has no effect. Housemaid Alma (Theresa Harris) then tells her that a Voodoo priest cured a woman of a similar condition. Betsy takes her patient without permission through cane fields past a crossroads guarded by the towering figure of the eerie Carre-Four (a reference to the loa Maitre Carrefours) to the houmfort (a place where Voodoo worshipers gather).
There, they watch a man (the Sabreur) wield a saber during a ritual. People are given advice through a shack door by a Voodoo priest. Betsy is summoned inside, where she is shocked to find that the priest is none other than Mrs. Rand. Mrs. Rand explains that she uses Voodoo to convince the natives to accept conventional medical practices and tells Betsy that Jessica can never be cured.
Outside, the locals stab Jessica in the arm with the sword as a test. When she does not bleed, they are convinced she is a zombie. Betsy takes her back to the house, where Paul is waiting. He is furious that she took Jessica to the voodoo ceremony but is moved when he realizes that she wanted to cure her for his sake. The local authorities come to investigate the next day, and the natives demand that Jessica be returned to them for "ritual tests". Later, Carre-Four approaches the residence, but Mrs. Rand orders him to leave.
Paul suggests that Betsy return to Canada, as he is regretful for missing her up in his family problems and fearful of demeaning and abusing her as he did Jessica. Betsy reluctantly agrees to leave Saint Sebastian.
The next day, Doctor Maxwell reports that the unrest has sparked an official inquiry into Jessica's illness. Mrs. Rand shocks everyone by claiming that Jessica is a zombie. Although she had never taken voodoo seriously before, Mrs Rand reveals that when she discovered that Jessica was planning to run away with Wesley and break up her family, she felt herself possessed by a Voodoo god. She then put a curse on Jessica. Paul, Maxwell and Betsy dismiss her story, but Wesley becomes obsessed with freeing Jessica from her zombie state. He asks Betsy if she would consider euthanasia, but she refuses.
Using an effigy of Jessica, the Sabreur takes control of her and draws her to him. Paul and Betsy stop her the first time, but they are not around when he tries again. Wesley opens the gate, letting Jessica out. Then he pulls an arrow out of the statue of Ti-Misery and follows. As the Sabreur stabs the doll with a pin, Wesley thrusts the arrow into Jessica. He then carries her body into the sea, pursued slowly by Carre-Four. Later, the natives discover the bodies of Jessica and Wesley floating in the surf. Paul comforts Betsy while Mrs. Rand weeps.Frances Dee as Betsy Connell
Tom Conway as Paul Holland
James Ellison as Wesley Rand
Edith Barrett as Mrs. Rand
James Bell as Dr. Maxwell
Christine Gordon as Jessica Holland
Theresa Harris as Alma
Sir Lancelot as Calypso Singer
Darby Jones as Carrefour
Jeni Le Gon as Dancer
Rita Christiani as a friend of Melise (uncredited)
Producer Val Lewton was forced to use the film's title by RKO executives. Officially, the film was based on an article written by Inez Wallace for American Weekly Magazine. Lewton asked his writers to use Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre for giving the story a narrative structure and to do research on Haitian voodoo practices.
Anna Lee was originally slated for the Frances Dee role, but had to bow out due to another commitment.
While I Walked with a Zombie was declared to be "a dull, disgusting exaggeration of an unhealthy, abnormal concept of life" by The New York Times in 1943, critics later called it "intelligent" (William K. Everson), "exceptional" (Leonard Maltin) and "the most elegant" in Lewton's RKO horror series (Tom Milne).
The film's treatment of the supernatural element repeatedly attracted interest among reviewers:"As with all of Val Lewton’s films, I Walked with a Zombie hovers on the deliberate edge of ambiguity between whether the explanation for events is mundane or supernatural. [...] The central belief/doubt ambiguity of the film hovers around the question of whether Jessica is suffering from tropical fever or has been affected by voodoo. The film sits just between rationalism and superstition – its duality plays on the conflict between Western Christendom and Caribbean culture, and between medicine and magic." – Richard Scheib
"In [I Walked with a Zombie] belief in the supernatural is but one of many faults in the human character. The script never confirms the reality of Voodoo even when it is clear that the Voodoo masters are controlling the zombie Carre-Four. It's worth noting that Wesley 'falls under the voodoo spell' only after despairing of the hopeless state of affairs at the Hammond house, and sinking into a deep depression. [...] Lewton's theme is that human nature creates Evil – that unresolved guilt and suspicions from the past dominate the Hammond family's present. Better natures are stifled, starting a chain of human misery that leads to tragedy. The result – wasted lives and blighted vitality – is as pervasive as the creeping Voodoo beliefs themselves. " – Glenn Erickson
In 2007, Stylus Magazine named it the fifth best zombie movie of all time.The film is referenced in Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice.
The film is referenced in the novel The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
The film's plot is recounted by the main characters in the novel Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig.
Singer-songwriter Roky Erickson wrote a song titled "I Walked with a Zombie", which appeared on his 1981 album The Evil One. Since then, the bands R.E.M., The Vietnam Veterans, U.K. Subs, Turbonegro, Alice Donut, The Visitors, Električni Orgazam, The New Orleans Radiators and Elf Power have covered this song.
In 1997, the punk band Link 80 used an image from the movie for their cover of their second album Killing Katie.
Wednesday 13's album Transylvania 90210: Songs of Death, Dying, and the Dead (2005) contains the track "I Walked With A Zombie", inspired by this film.
Dance collective Transglobal Underground sampled some of the voodoo chanting from the soundtrack of I Walked with a Zombie for the track "Zombie'ites" from their 1993 album Dream of 100 Nations.
In the season 1 episode of Pretty Little Liars, 'Please, Do Talk About Me When I'm Gone', the characters of Emily and Maya go to see the film and shots from the film are used in the episode.
The film is referenced in the season 8 episode of Archer, 'Archer Dreamland: Sleepers Wake'.
Pedro Costa has suggested that his original intention for his 1994 film Casa de Lava was to remake I Walked With a Zombie. It tells the story of a nurse (Inês de Medeiros) returning a comatose patient (Isaach De Bankolé) to his homeland of Cape Verde.
Ritual is an authorized remake of I Walked With a Zombie, coproduced by RKO.