The Walking Dead (Warner Brothers 1936)
The Walking Dead is one of those films that has never been particularly easy to watch, its availability on DVD being relatively limited. However, when the chance to view it presents itself, it does give you that warm glow that only finally seeing a movie that has eluded you for years can give you.
Classic horror movie fans can be very forgiving of some of the older, more simplistic movies, but The Walking Dead needs no such benevolence; Karloff’s performance as the ill-fated John Ellman, ruthlessly framed and sent to the electric chair by a gang of unscrupulous racketeers, is beyond reproach, garnering at once the pathos and sympathy for which his work is renowned.
Death row: The framed John Ellman (Boris Karloff) heads for the electric chair in The Walking Dead (Warner Brothers 1936)
There is excellent support from the admirably proficient Marguerite Churchill as Nancy, who befriends the haplessly resurrected Ellman, and stolid delivery from Edmund Gwenn as steely Dr Beaumont, whose sole purpose becomes learning the ultimate life and death secrets from the bedevilled victim.
With moody camera work by Hal Mohr and inspired sets from art director Hugh Reticker, The Walking Dead creates an eerily churning atmosphere, contrasting the uneasy feeling of morbidity with an almost palpable, heart-wrenching melancholy.
Back from the dead: The knowledge Ellman (Boris Karloff) brings back from beyond the grave slightly unhinges him in The Walking Dead (Warner Brothers 1936)
Directed by Michael Curtiz from an original story by Ewart Adamson and Joseph Fields, the film foreshadows many of the admirable similar movies that Karloff would make over the following decade, but somehow seems to infuse itself with a sincerity that its successors didn’t pull off with quite such aplomb.
The whole theme of what lay behind the final curtain was not so de rigueur in the mid-1930s, and in this consideration, The Walking Dead was a little brave, with its mock condemnation of ‘a jealous God’; even Universal’s Frankenstein (1931) had to excise its potentially blasphemous lines of dialogue to appease a skittish censor.
Tricky triumvirate: Jimmy (Warren Hull) begins to feel a little left out when Nancy (Marguerite Churchill) takes a professional interest in Ellman (Boris Karloff); a publicity still for The Walking Dead (Warner Brothers 1936)
Taken on balance, this is definitely a movie worth seeking out and viewing today. Karloff began shooting on his 48th birthday, and the film wrapped just 18 days later, but the vehicle as a whole seems anything but rushed. Such schedules would be virtually unheard of today, but The Walking Dead proves once again that, with the right cast and crew and a good screenplay, wonders could always be achieved.