For Halloween tomorrow, we have a look at a rather unusual monster movie. “The Walking Dead” (1936) is a unique combination of hard-boiled gangster movie and the kind of campy film where the creature escapes from the lab. It is also a look at the sacredness of both life and death against the cold reality of profane daily corruption. Not the usual stuff of monster flicks, but Warner Bros., that bastion of gangster films and socially conscious films, could turn even a movie with the lurid title of “The Walking Dead” on its axis and make it into something more.
Boris Karloff stars as an ex-con, a gentle musician, who is set up by a mob out to murder a judge. They pin the crime on the innocent Karloff. Ricardo Cortez suavely plays the head of this mob gang. Edmund Gwenn, complete with professorial Van Dyke beard and trim moustache, pince-nez glasses and wing collar, plays the scientist who brings Karloff back to life after he has been executed in the electric chair.
Oh, yeah. You didn’t think you were going to see a Warner Bros. gangster flick without an electric chair, did you? The film actually starts off as a gangster movie with all the types, screaming headlines and a gunman named “Trigger.” Unless you happened to be Roy Rogers’ horse, if you were named “Trigger” you were going to grow up to be a hired gun.
Then poor Mr. Karloff is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and we have the mournful march to the chair accompanied by his favorite piece of music on the cello, because it reminds him of heaven. We have the waiting for the last minute reprieve from the governor, the prayers read in Latin (not by a priest, by a man in suit?) as he walks the last mile, and the inevitable, popcorn-selling dimming of the lights when the switch is thrown.
After this point is when it becomes a monster movie.
His body is taken by scientist Edmund Gwenn to be brought back to life. I believe this is not the usual procedure our criminal justice system, but would the Warner Bros. lie to us?
A complication has ensued. Mr. Gwenn’s two young lovebird lab assistants saw the crime and can testify to Karloff’s innocence. But not until the 11th hour do they confess this because for months and months all during the trial they did not want to get involved. Now suddenly they feel bad. One of the most edge-on-your-seat moments in the film is when the governor’s office, armed with this new information, calls to cancel the execution, and two uniformed guards at the prison do not answer the phone in time because they are discussing baseball. The audience is thrown into a frenzy of anxiety because we know the ringing phone will save Karloff’s life, and the cop who moves to answer it keeps stopping to continue their conversation about baseball. It’s a wet your pants moment.
But, Karloff has a second chance at life in the hands of kindly but science-obsessed Mr. Gwenn. We have the standard lab scene of bubbling test tubes, coils and an exam table that rocks up and down when the switch is thrown. Why being shaken like a cocktail will induce a dead person back to life has not yet been proven by The New England Journal of Medicine, but this seems to be a common feature in movies where a dead body is brought back to life. I particularly like that the x-ray or fluoroscope of his body shows a skeleton and a beating heart shaped somewhat like a valentine heart. Now, that’s just cute.
And of course, we have the standard line by the scientist….ready? All together now…
But Gwenn does not shriek it with the wild abandon that Colin Clive does in “Frankenstein” (1931). It’s more like a whisper of quiet satisfaction.
There are similarities to the Frankenstein monster in the revived Boris Karloff, with a slow, lumbering gait, a shock of white through his dark prison haircut, an empty, hollow expression and a rather monotone voice. But this “monster” plays the piano. Karloff portrays him with a sweet, sad poignancy as a man caught between two worlds, the world of the living and the world of the hereafter.
Gwenn probes Karloff’s conscious for information on the great beyond, especially since Karloff is suddenly able to pick out the men who framed him, though he had no knowledge of it before his execution. One by one, he visits these men, as if stalking them, not to revenge himself, but to ask them why they did what they did, to confront their consciences. Each of them dies in freak accidents.
It is probably a nod to the Code that the studio attempts to wrench this lurid, campy tale into a moral tapestry of good and evil. As Karloff tells Gwenn, “Leave the dead to their maker. The Lord our God is a jealous God.” It’s a bit self-conscious, and Gwenn repeats the line at the end of the film, as if to say he has learned his lesson, and will only work on cures for dry skin from now on.
Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film seems to have some early moody film noir traits, such as the shot of the judge in the courtroom through the desk lamp of the clerk, and the shot of the cellist downward from the slowly revolving blades of a ceiling fan in the prison, and a few floor-to-ceiling shots of crime scenes.
Boris Karloff, for his part, gets to actually act in this movie, which he did really not get to do in the more splashy, more famous “Frankenstein.” A touching performance in many respects, this man with the distinguished speaking voice and the gentle manner would have been fascinating in more than just horror films. In a studio system where actors were pegged as types, he tried his best, when he could, to get beyond that. I think he does here, even with this lightweight script.