1936’s THE WALKING DEAD has absolutely nothing to do with the wildly popular AMC TV series. This WALKING DEAD stars Boris Karloff , making the first of a five-picture deal he signed with Warners, an interesting hybrid of the gangster and horror genres about an unjustly executed man who’s revived by science exacting vengeance on those who set him up. The result was a fast paced (clocked at 66 minutes) entry in the first horror cycle, and one of the last horror films made until their 1939 revival (more about that later).
Boris stars as John Ellman, newly released from a stretch in prison. A gangland cartel, looking to get rid of a law-and-order judge, set Ellman up as a patsy, hiring him to stake out the judge’s home, murdering the guy, and dumping the body in Ellman’s car. He goes on trial, defended by crooked lawyer Nolan, and sentenced to death by electric chair. Two witnesses, Jimmy and Nancy, saw the thugs put the body in Ellman’s car, but are too scared to say anything.
Jimmy and Nancy finally confide in their boss Dr. Beaumont, who’s been experimenting in reanimating the dead. Ellman’s body is sent to Beaumont and, with Strickefaden-like electrical equipment a-cracklin’, the dead man returns to life. The medical community is agog with this wonder of science, though Ellman has developed a wide streak of white hair and a zombie-like shuffle. Beaumont wants to know what it was like in the brief time Ellman was dead, but he can’t remember much. However, Ellman has begun receiving messages from “some supernatural power” about the men responsible for his death.
Ellman becomes an Avenging Angel of Death, confronting those who conspired against him. First to go is the hitman “Trigger”, quickly followed by Blackstone and Merritt (during an eerie thunderstorm). Ellman wanders to a cemetery, followed by Nancy, who’s followed by gangsters Nolan and Loder. “I belong here”, says Ellman, before the hoodlums shoot him down. Beaumont and Jimmy arrive, and Beaumont presses Ellman for the “secrets from the beyond”. “Leave the dead to their maker”, intones Ellman, “for the Lord God is a jealous God”, just as Nolan and Loder are involved in a fatal car crash and electrocuted themselves. Ellman expires, taking the secrets of what happens after death with him for good.
Boris is excellent as always, playing for pathos as the zombie-like Ellman. His mannerisms remind viewers of his FRANKENSTEIN monster, though Ellman still has a spark of intelligence. Perc Westmore’s makeup is more subdued than Jack Pierce’s job, with only a shock of white hair and an unflinching left eye to convey the horror of the living dead. Karloff acts mainly with his body, his shambling gait and crippled arm doing the work. It’s a restrained performance, and another fine addition to Boris’ Gallery of Horror works.
The rest of the cast comes straight from Warner’s B-team. Edmond Gwenn is the scientist seeking the answers to life after death, years before his Kris Kringle in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Marguerite Churchill’s (Nancy) brief film career included the Universal horror DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. Ricardo Cortez (Nolan) was a silent matinée idol who got typecast as a heavy in the sound era; he’s also the only actor to play both Sam Spade (1931’s THE MALTESE FALCON) and Perry Mason (CURSE OF THE BLACK CAT). Barton McLane (Loder) was usually a henchman; he costarred with Glenda Farrell in the Torchy Blane series and later became General Peterson on TV’s I DREAM OF JEANNIE. Warren Hull (Jimmy) is known to serial fans as The Green Hornet, The Spider, and Mandrake the Magician. Other Familiar Faces are Eddie Acuff, Joseph King, Henry O’Neill , Addison Richards, and Joe Sawyer.
Michael Curtiz was an old hand at horror, having directed Warner’s two early shockers starring Lionel Atwill . It must have been a slow week for Curtiz, as he was used to bigger budget vehicles by this point. Hal Mohr’s cinematography is appropriately spooky, especially in the cemetery scenes. Karloff had four more pictures to go on his contract, but the British horror ban and censorship issues put the kibosh on fright films beginning in 1937. After a few more 1936 releases (DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, THE INVISIBLE RAY, THE DEVIL DOLL, REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES), films with horror themes left the silver screen until 1939, when Boris returned to the role that made him famous, along with Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone, in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, beginning Hollywood’s second horror cycle. Can you imagine a world with no horror films? That’s the most frightening thought of all!