The Walking Dead(1936)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Boris Karloff, Edmund Gwenn, Ricardo Cortez
One of the most underrated and unique horror films of the golden age has to be The Walking Dead from 1936. Released on the tail end of the first wave of golden age chillers, the film works like a cross between a Warners gangster film and a Universal horror. Warners Bros horror films were always different than the more gothic ones made at Universal, featurning instead, contemporary locales and snappy dialogue to offset the terror. Michael Curtiz had already made two horror films with the technicolor duo of Doctor X(1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum(1933), both at the same studio. Karloff was a huge draw and Warners signed him on to a five picture contract, beginning with this film. It's one of the actor's most poignant and powerful pictures and contains one of his finest performances in an era where he seemed to be able to deliver nothing but something that was indelible.
(Bizarre advertisement above. For some reason, Henry Hall's Werewolf of London(1935) is used instead of Boris Karloff!)
The story revolves around a group of gangsters who run a town and want a judge out of the way. Lead gangster, Nolan(Ricardo Cortez) sets up a recently released prisoner, John Ellman(Boris Karloff) who was sent up by the judge, to take the fall. The gangsters set it up that the judges body ends up in the back of Ellman's car, but a couple witness it, Nancy and Jimmy(Marguerite Churchill and Warren Hull), but they remain quiet for fear of they're lives. Ellman is found guilty, his lawyer is Nolan, the very crook who sent him up! Ellman is placed on death row, despite many pleas for release. At the last moment, Nancy and Jimmy go for help and confess, but Ellman is sent to the electric chair. The young couple work for a brilliant scientist, Dr. Evan Beaumont(Edmund Gwenn) and he orders the body brought to his laboratory, where he is revived, but without a memory of who he is. Slowly, Ellman regains memories and can play the piano even, for he was a musician before. He reacts violenty when seeing Nolan and when questioned, he does not know why he regards him as an enemy. In a brilliantly staged sequence, a concert is held at Beaumont's house, where Ellman performs, staring down the men who framed him as he plays on his piano. They arrange a hit on him, but Ellman confronts the would be hitman and scares the gangster into shooting himself. Soon, all the gangsters fall one by one, by their own hand, as Ellman appears to have the very spectre of death walking beside him. Nolan and Warners Bros. heavy, Barton Maclane, the oen with the perpetual scowl, go and find Ellman at a cemetary on a rainy evening and gun him down. The doctor, Jim and Nancy and District Attorney Werner(Henry O' Neill) arrive and in one of the most moving endings in a horror film, Karloff's dying Ellman atempst to explain what death is to Beaumont, only able to get out one word, "peace." Beaumont, tearful and beaten, looks out upon the rain soaked cemetary and decrees, "the Lord our God, is a jealous god."
For years this film was unavailable for most to see, cropping up on TCM once in a blue moon, and at Halloween time. I had a bootleg for years, but happily this classic appeared on a Warners DVD recently as part of a Karloff and Lugosi collection. It's the highlight of the package, and one of the most criminally underseen of horror movies, even now. The premise is just cool sounding for the film buff: Warners gangsters in a Boris Karloff film and that should have been enough to sell it to aficionados. Combine that with an excellent supporting cast and one of the greatest Hollywood directors of all time and you have what should be, a much more recognized work. Several historians rank this as one of the finest horror films of the period and it is. Like most Warners films, the picture has a brisk pace, running scarcely over an hour and never wasting a single frame. Curtiz, obviously from the school of expressionism, shoots this like a gangster variation on Frankenstein with bizarre angles and his ever present shadows, that pre-figured the dark world of film noir. His camera is ever mobile, particularly in the creation sequence, which has to be one of the half dozen best on film. Curtiz dabbled in virtually every genre, and always provided fine work, but it's a pity he didn't return to the genre more often, because he appeared to be truly at ease within it.
The cast are all excellent, peppered with many familiar faces from other Warner Bros classics. Maclane is the standout as the most brutal of the gangsters in his typical tough no-nonsense fashion and it's fun seeing Joe Sawyer, a regular in scores of tough guy and character parts as the ill-fated hitman, "Trigger." Ricardo Cortez, the screen's first Sam Spade in the effective 1931 production of The Maltese Falcon(which also had Dwight Frye!) makes for one of the slimiest gangsters that Warners could produce and that's saying something! His lack of a consience and machiavellian schemes make him a perfect villain for us to hiss and his ironic death, along with Maclane, electrocution after skidding off the road into a power line is satisfying. The young couple. despite the last minute rush to save Ellman probably making them appearing cowardly, are actually refreshingly likeable and human. Churchill never even screams at the sight of the Karloff character, instead weeping when he is shot and dying and that makes the ending that much more poignant, for hsi character is far from a monster, like so many in his rogue's gallery of performances. Edmund Gwenn is perfect as always, showing both dedication to his work, but also compassion that makes him into something more than the typical mad scientist. He really wants to aid humanity and we root for him, even though his constant badgering to Karloff's character about the secrets of death may appear unsympathetic, the scientist in him makes them understandable and we never regard him as being anything less than human.
Karloff appears at times like his Frankenstein Monster, even sporting a makeup that sort of resembles that character, but it does not detract from his portrayal. His John Ellman is an avenging angel, driven by a greater force, as alluded to, possibly death itself. Never is he seen, outside of the guilty and shameful gangsters, as anything other than the benovolent character he is. Karloff's underplaying of the role adds immeasurably to the film's impact and that unforgettable finale. His eyes do so mcuh of the work, whether they are staring down into the souls of the men who condemned and framed him or looking up to the heavens on his death bed, they are the driving force behind his characterization. Boris would have many fine characterizations in this rich period of cinema, but his John Ellman is oen of his most challenging and poignant.
The Walking Dead may appear to be a mere hodge podge of two disparate genres, but it's more than that. It's an entertaining and powerful film that may stand as one of the most effective studies on our fears and questions about death. Ray Bradbury once stated that Boris Karloff's main purpose in life, may have been to illustrate that fear and fascination to his world wide audience, and certainly in the case of this film that couldn't be a truer statement. It's a subtle and unique film, quite unlike many other genre efforts that would follow. I'm certain that if remade today, Karloff's character would merely hack and stab his victims in bloody fashion, for it's doubtful that today's Hollywood has any of the understanding of nuance and subtleties that these filmmakers had. I urge all classic film fans to seek this one out, especially for those who have a taste for the genre of the fantastic. It's one of the true "lost" classics of the golden age, proving not just what a truly brilliant actor was, but how how intensely moving a genre, horror can actually be.