The Walking Dead (1936) Michael Curtiz

The Waliking Dea poster

“The Walking Dead” is a blend of gangster film, horror with a touch of science fiction tossed in.  Directed by Warner Brothers’ stalwart Michael Curtiz, who previously dabbled in the horror genre with “Doctor X” and “Mystery of the Wax Museum”, this 1936 film, is an engaging oddity that should not be missed. The film stars Boris Karloff as John Ellman, a down on his luck ex-convict who innocently gets mixed up with some underworld characters. He is framed for the murder of a judge who just convicted one of their buddies to a long prison term.  Two young medical assistants, Nancy (Marguarite Churchill) and Jimmy (Warren Hull) are witnesses to Ellman’s frame-up but do not come forth and say anything until the last minutes before his execution. By the time, the Governor is reached to stop the electrocution it is too late. Dr. Evan Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), who Nancy and Jimmy work for, wants Ellman’s body for his experiments in bringing people back from the dead. Beaumont’s experiment is successful and Ellman is brought back to life.

Though he is alive, Ellman is not quite the man he used to be. He cannot remember much except who framed him and that he has an affinity for wanting to spend time at the cemetery where he says he feels that this is where he belongs.  Zombie like, Ellman soon begins to go after each of the men responsible for his frame-up and one by one, they begin to die, though more from fright than from Ellman actually doing anything.walking

What makes the film exceptional is the cinematography by Hal Mohr. The film is gorgeously shot with eerie long shadows. Most spectacular is the buildup to Ellman’s execution, poignant cello playing, and shadows of the jail cell bars flowing dramatically across the floor. The film is worth seeing for this scene alone.

Along with Karloff, the film’s cast includes Ricardo Cortez as Nolan, the mob’s slime ball lawyer, Barton MacLane as one of the gangsters and Joe Sawyer as the shooter appropriately named “Trigger.” Edmund Gwenn, best known as the real Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street” is the research doctor who is more interested in what it is like to be dead than in saving Ellman’s life. As Ellman lays on the ground dying the Doctor drills him, “What’s it like to be dead…tell me!”  In his final words, Ellman begins to tell him, “After the shock, I seemed to feel peace and….” He never finishes the sentence.

Karloff of course has been resurrected from the dead more times cinematically than anyone has except for you know whom, I count at least four. He first rose from the dead as the monster in the 1931 James Whale classic “Frankenstein” (it’s alive! it’s alive! cried Dr. Frankenstein) followed by “The Mummy” in 1932.  In 1936 came this film, and since you cannot keep a good man down, or dead for that matter, he came back one more time in Columbia’s 1939 low budget “The Man They Could Not Hang” , a film with some similarities to this one.   With his hallow cheeks and mournful look Karloff makes an effecting brain dead zombie that will keep haunting you long after the film’s short running time ends.

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10 comments on “The Walking Dead (1936) Michael Curtiz

  1. This is a nice little film with a strong sense of the uncanny and a sympathetic performance by Karloff, but since I first saw it I’ve assumed that Ellman’s post-resurrection piano recital was the inspiration for the “Putting on the Ritz” number in Young Frankenstein. Has Mel Brooks ever acknowledged it?

    • John Greco says:

      I am not aware of any acknowledgement by Brooks on this but that is an interesting thought. It is possible that Gene Wilder is the one who was inspired and not Brooks since I believe the original script was his before he and Brooks teamed up and rewrote.

  2. Dave says:

    I have this sitting on my DVR so you really have me looking forward to this. As you know, John, I’m a big Curtiz fan, so I’m going to have to watch this one tomorrow night for sure. More thoughts to come then.

  3. Sam Juliano says:

    John: Another Karloff film where he enacts revenge against those who harmed in is THE INVISIBLE RAY (where he is paired with Lugosi). But plot-wise Karloff doesn’t die, but rather becomes contaminated. But that film could rightly be categorized as science-fiction, though it’s an eerie and menacing film. Perhaps it may have been even more effective if Karloff and Lugosi had switched roles. In any case THE WALKING DEAD does indeed benefit greatly (as you rightly note)fromHal Mohr’s cinematography, and yes that execution build-up sequence is outstanding. Exceptional review of a film that deserves far more attention, even with Cutiz at the helm.

  4. John Greco says:

    Sam,

    While I have heard of “The Invisible Ray” I have yet to see it. Certainly sounds interesting enough. I will have to give it a try.

  5. Judy says:

    This sounds spectacularly weird. I haven’t seen enough classic horror, but have just watched ‘Nosferatu’, so, after being creeped out by Max Schreck, it could be time to see some Karloff too!

    • John Greco says:

      Judy,

      This is an interesting film and I love the affective photography which contributes so much. I saw “Nosferatu” many years ago, back in the 1970’s, I believe it was at the Museum of Modern Art. This was years before home video.

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