“The Walking Dead” (1936)
by A.J. Hakari
Few actors can claim to have been typecast as benevolent ghouls raised from the dead against their will, and even less pulled off these roles as perfectly as Boris Karloff. Like the elder and junior Lon Chaneys, Karloff was an early horror superstar who brought depth to the monsters and madmen he portrayed. A magnetic performer to start with, his ability to elicit sympathy for characters who killed or maimed gave the genre some of its most fascinatingly complex creations. But while his acclaim for Frankenstein and The Mummy is beyond deserved, 1936’s The Walking Dead features one of our man’s most soulful and underseen turns. This is a film where dancing around censorship limits turned out for the better, as a much wilder and intense screenplay got whittled down into something more on the suggestively spooky side. What transpires in The Walking Dead is chilling enough, but that such shocking acts come divinely sanctioned helps push it that extra creepy mile.
A wave of terror has struck the city, although the menace isn’t of supernatural origin. It’s a syndicate of gangsters and crooks who’ve infiltrated high society, putting themselves in the position of being able to casually bump off anyone who dares strike a blow against their criminal enterprise. This group’s latest victim is poor John Ellman (Karloff), an ex-convict whom they frame for the murder of a judge. The unwitting pawn goes to the electric chair for the bogus crime, but the Almighty has other plans in store for him. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), Ellman is brought back from the dead and subsequently cleared of all charges. However, he still has some unfinished business with those who set him up, compelled to seek them out without having ever met them. One by one, the lowlifes meet grisly ends, as Ellman is guided by otherworldly hands to deliver retribution from beyond the grave.
Directed by Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz, The Walking Dead is a more ominous and complicated horror show than some might expect from a film of its age. While many fright flicks of the time were taking their fair share of chances (be it the sexual subtext of Dracula’s Daughter or Mad Love‘s perverse streak), a certain formula had emerged that kept viewers at a distance from content that proved too foundation-rattling. Movies usually included romantic and comedic elements to undercut the terror of the main story, and The Walking Dead is no exception. Whenever Ellman’s haunted gaze isn’t emblazoned across the screen, we follow either Warren Hull and Marguerite Churchill as Beaumont’s lovebird assistants or Ricardo Cortez presiding over the Warner Bros. lot’s best mobster character actors as our chief villains. But while it wouldn’t have taken The Walking Dead all that much effort to sit back and let the clichés do the talking, Curtiz is able to beckon the plot’s inherent sorrow to the surface and help make a lasting impression. This applies not only to Ellman but also to Hull and Churchill’s characters, who are pressured into silence after witnessing the incident for which Ellman is blamed and only speak up when it’s too late. There are even shades of gray to kindly old Dr. Beaumont, who becomes obsessed with learning the secrets of the afterlife upon realizing his patient knows things he couldn’t possibly have before dying. All of these pieces contribute to a pervading sadness that does wonders for the film’s eerie style and assures viewers that whatever scares are encountered here won’t be cheap.
But, of course, the very heart of The Walking Dead is Boris Karloff, playing a figure as tragic as Henry Frankenstein’s prized science project. Although early drafts of the script had Ellman taking on a more active and animalistic role when it came to the death scenes, revisions toned down his involvement, a decision that bestowed an unsettling power upon the film. Not even death can spare our hero from being exploited, for he’s powerless to prevent supernatural forces from using his body as a specter of death and haunting those who wronged him into bringing about their own demises. Karloff is absolutely heartbreaking in moments like these, but he can also be terrifying as all get-out while doing so little, as exemplified by a sequence in which his legendary stare seems to pierce the very souls of Cortez and his crew. Between Karloff’s performance and Hal Mohr’s foreboding photography, The Walking Dead almost effortlessly instills the audience with a sense of dread that feels inescapable, even when we cut to other characters for some down time. Sure, what Hull and Churchill are up to isn’t as interesting as Ellman’s plight, but they’re an appealing pair you come to feel for with the more responsibility they assume for his current condition. Similarly, where the villains (played by famous bit players like Barton MacLane and Paul Harvey) and their wise guy acts would come off as corny just about anywhere else, this film makes it endearing and, more importantly, knows to drop the sarcasm when Ellman comes calling for them.
The Walking Dead is a seldom-seen treasure, but it’s also a slow burn that doesn’t possess the urgency or excitement some of today’s horror hounds may be craving. Its imagery isn’t nearly as iconic as that of Karloff’s Universal outings, and the measured pacing has a good shot of making a few viewers tap out before the first body has dropped. But stick with it, and you might find The Walking Dead holds up just fine against many of the era’s more preeminent spookfests.