Pop Culture Gadabout
Thursday, November 22, 2007
      ( 11/22/2007 08:07:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"MURDER, THE TRIGGER WILL TELL YOU, IS A VERY FINE ART!" A strange blend of gangster flick and old-fashioned horror film – with elements of sentimental religiosity tossed in to make things even more generically puzzling - Warner Bros.' The Walking Dead (1936) is a decidedly odd little B-flick. Ostensibly a vehicle for Boris Karloff, the movie tells the tale of a fall-guy musician who's framed and electrocuted for the murder of a gang-busting judge - only to be revived by a kindly doctor played Edmund Gwenn. Though this premise would lead you to expect a fairly standard story of revenge from beyond the grave, Walking Dead plays around with that expectation. Karloff's resurrected John Ellman, though he has every right to be vengeful, primarily shows up to tell each of the five men responsible for his unjust execution that he knows what they did to him, letting each man destroy himself out of panicky guilt.

The focus on Walking Dead is less on its mad scientist subplot and more on its gangland story: for the first half hour, especially, director Michael Curtiz layers on the underworld and prison atmosphere. The sequences with Karloff awaiting execution (and a too-late stay from the governor) are filmed with plenty of vigorous conviction, and Karloff is especially fine here, selling even a hokey bit like the one just before his date with the executioner's chair - where he raises his eyes heavenwards and states that even if no one else believes in his innocence, "He'll believe me!"

Turns out this line isn't just a minor character moment, since a big part of the movie's final third hinges on questions of what Ellman saw and learned when he was dead. Blessed with "supernatural knowledge" of his betrayers' actions and whereabouts ("How did you know I was here?" the doomed thugs ask whenever Karloff pops up in their presence), Ellman still is unable to describe his afterlife experiences to the living. Though Gwenn's Dr. Beaumont struggles to get his revived patient to provide a description of his time as a dead man, he's doomed to be disappointed. "Leave the dead to their maker," Ellman says at one point. "The Lord our God is a jealous god." Karloff's recitation of this line is even repeated over the end credits, just to hammer the point home.

I pulled this flick off of Turner Classic Movies recently when it ran as part of the Halloween schedule - in between several Corman schlockworks and several more traditional b-&-w Karloff scareflicks (The Invisible Ray, Isle of the Dead) – and I've gotta admit it took me aback. Though its frights are minimal, the movie's performed with plenty of gusto, while the presence of such great WB stock players as Ricardo Cortez (a sleazy lawyer in this flick, though he also played Perry Mason in a movie the same year) and Barton MacLane is an added bonus. Karloff is, of course, fun to watch in a role which emphasizes pathos over snarling horror to a greater degree than his turns as the creature in James Whale's two Frankenstein flicks.

The film's biggest weak spot: its romantic boy/girl subplot carried by Marguerite Churchill & Warren Hull. These two characters are so ineffectual and unnecessary that the movie can barely muster up interest when Churchill's ingenue has a late-night rendezvous with Karloff in a cemetery. Young guy Hull gets a great Burt Ward-y line early in the flick, however. Run off the road by the same gunsel responsible for framing Ellman, he declaims, "Bust my fenders! They're not gonna get away with that hit-and-run stuff!" They just don't write 'em like that, anymore.

Our young couple, Nancy & Jimmy, know that Ellman was innocent of the judge's murder from the beginning. But fear of becoming a gangsters' target keeps 'em from going to the authorities with what they've witnessed until it's too late. We wait for the knowledgeable dead man to confront our heroine with the consequences of her inaction, but that moment never arrives. In a modern horror movie, you just know Ellman would've done so – and probably tried to eat her liver besides. Who says that today's horror flicks don't have any underlying values?

NOTE: The Walking Dead does not appear to be available as a DVD or even a VHS tape. Considering the number of crap horrorflix that've been preserved in these formats, that definitely doesn't seem right . . .
# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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