April 22, 2008
The Walking Dead (1936)
While definitely a highly talented and extremely versatile actor, Boris Karloff's name will always be linked to the horror genre thanks not only to his classic performance in James Whale's "Frankenstein" (movie that along Tod Browning's "Dracula" started the "Golden Age" of Universal Studios' horror films in 1931), but also to the many other excellent movies he made within the limits of the genre, effectively earning himself a place amongst the horror icons of film history. By the year of 1936, Karloff was at the top of his game, following his performance in the 1935's masterpiece "Bride of Frankenstein" with a series of lesser known, yet highly entertaining gems such as "The Invisible Ray". It would be at this point where his career would take him back to the Warner Bros. Studios, where he had made several gangster films in the past. But instead of making another crime film, he would star in "The Walking Dead", a weird mix of both genres.
In "The Walking Dead", a gang of racketeers conceive a plan to murder Judge Roger Shaw (Joe King), setting up the recently released convict John Ellam (Boris Karloff) for the murder. Ellam is just a musician with bad luck who only wants a second chance to fix his life, but the gangsters' plan is effective and he ends up being sentenced to the electric chair. However, a young couple, Nancy (Marguerite Churchill) and Jimmy (Warren Hull) witnessed the crime, and know that Ellam is indeed innocent. While their fear of the gangsters' vengeance kept them silent during the trial, they decide to testify before its too late, but sadly, Ellam is executed before anything is done. Fortunately, Nancy and Jimmy are assistants of Dr. Evan Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), a renowned scientist who decides to resurrect Ellam using an experimental method. But something is different in the resurrected Ellam now, and justice will be done.
Like many Warner Bros films of that era, the story was written (and probably rewritten more than one time) by a team of several writers under contract, however, Ewart Adamson could be pointed out as the driving force behind it as he also wrote the screenplay for it. Judging by its title and concept, it could be easily assumed that "The Walking Dead" is just another story of reanimated corpses and mad scientists (and the fact that Karloff stars in it adds more to the connection to "Frankenstein"), but this is definitely, a different kind of beast. Not only it includes the typical elements of gangster films , but also adds a different and uncommon view on the "supernatural revenge" theme: it truly plays heavily (and intelligently) with the themes of justice, innocence and guilt. In a very original twist (without spoiling too much), the "monster" acts more like the personification of guilt than like the typical murderous maniac of this kind of stories.
Better known as the orchestrator of the legendary classic, "Casablanca", director Michael Curtiz developed his talent through the 30s working in numerous productions for Warner, where he proved to be an effective and versatile filmmaker. In "The Walking Dead", Curtiz revives the look and style of the German Expressionism he knew at home (he was Hungarian), using the brilliant work of cinematographer Hal Mohr to create a haunting and extremely atmospheric horror film. Playing with lighting, dynamic camera angles and specially with the use of shadows, Mohr and Curtiz make a visually breathtaking film that at times feels like the bridge between Gothic horror and Film Noir. However, the movie is not only just stylish visual flare, as while Curtiz definitely polished his style in this film, it seems like he was aware that Karloff was the real star of the show, as he focuses the film completely on him and just lets the master do his magic.
And Boris Karloff truly shines in this film, as his character allows him to display a wide range of emotions that show what a great talent he was. The most striking feature is definitely how expressive are his eyes, as through them we get to see the inside of Ellam's innocent soul, which seems to serve a hidden, higher purpose. It is truly a powerful performance that could easily rank among his best. As Dr. Beaumont, Edmund Gwenn is more than effective, as he adds a lot of humanity to a role that could easily be another "mad scientist" type of character. However, I feel that Ricardo Cortez (who plays the gangsters' leader, Mr. Nolan) steals all his scenes, despite his limited screen time. I must also add that Marguerite Churchill is not only extremely beautiful, but also a great talent that manages to shine with her own light and avoid being overshadowed by Karloff, Gwenn and Cortez. Not an easy thing to do!
Effective, entertaining, and remarkably original, "The Walking Dead" is definitely another of those lesser known films from the 30s that get overshadowed by the classic movies done by Universal Studios despite being as good (or probably better) than most of them. Personally, I found the movie to be not only beautifully done, but also very intelligent and probably even philosophical, as while it certainly works under the stretches of science fiction, the way it touches themes such as death, fate and innocence is quite interesting in its conception. Some could say that the film hasn't aged well, but it's remarkable the way Curtiz employed his low budget to create a film that looks better than most A-films of its time (Curtiz was always considered an effective filmmaker for working under budget). Despite some minor problems, I think "The Walking Dead" is still one of the best movies from the 30s.
It's a real shame that "The Walking Dead" still remains an undiscovered gem from the decade of the 30s, as it's truly a wonderful and uncommon piece of horror cinema. I assume that this lack of recognition is mainly due to the fact that it isn't a movie one would call as easy to find (at the time I write this review, no DVD for this film has been released), but hopefully, this will change soon and more will discover this highly original and extremely powerful horror. While lesser known than other films by Curtiz, "The Walking Dead" is a film that shows how the talent of this often overlooked director (I think he was definitely more than just a gun for hire) was growing through the decade. A true discovery.