The time of the spooks is upon us! Happy almost-Halloween to my fellow Old Movie Weirdos. Halloween on TMP means Horror Half-Week, a four-day celebration of eerie films from the early to mid-20th century. Today we kick off the 2016 series with a review of 1936’s The Walking Dead, starring the great Boris Karloff.
John Elman (Boris Karloff) has recently been released from prison… just in time for the murder of Judge Shaw (Joseph King). Elman didn’t commit the crime, but makes a very easy target for framing by a corrupt gang of racketeers.
Jimmy (Warren Hull) and Nancy (Marguerite Churchill) witnessed the crime and know that Elman is innocent, but they’re afraid to come forward. With a weak defense, Elman is convicted and sentenced to death.
Knowing Elman’s fate, Nancy is struck with guilt and tells her boss, Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), that she knows he is innocent. Luckily for the wrongly-convicted man, Beaumont happens to be working on a medical experiment that involves reviving the dead.
Michael Curtiz directs 1936’s The Walking Dead. This was the second film to partner Curtiz with star Boris Karloff, the first being 1931’s The Mad Genius.
The Walking Dead is essentially a zombie flick (no surprises there), but not your average zombie flick. It opens with a high profile court case — newspapermen, lawyers, and all waiting for and betting on/predicting the outcome of the trial. Later, the film delves into the scientific process used by Dr. Beaumont, also tracking the post-resurrection adventures of the zombified Elman.
The film’s best scenes emerge when Dr. Beaumont and his experiment are being explored, complete with a peak into his “mad scientist” lab, with all of its unusual technologies. Since the film’s run time is so short, I would have liked to see the earlier court scenes and background condensed a bit, to make more time for the sci-fi and horror. I do, however, like the fact that the film blends the typical Warner crime drama with supernatural elements, setting it apart from other tales of wrongful accusation or conviction, as well as from similar tales of vengeful zombies.
TCM aired this film back in August as a part of Boris Karloff’s Summer Under the Stars day, and the film also works very well as a testament to Karloff’s talent. His zombie portrayal is uniquely lovable, the actor managing to evoke plenty of sympathy for his character despite all that happens. He’s fascinating to watch here.
Also on the positive, the film features some wonderful photography and is appropriately moody. One unforgettable scene shows Elman being walked to his execution, a fellow prisoner playing a sad song to accompany the procession. It’s a gut-wrenching moment, perfectly executed, and I would watch this film again just to see it!
I won’t be counting The Walking Dead as a new favorite, but it’s well worth tuning in for, especially for a stellar performance by Karloff.