The Walking Dead (1936)


An ex-convict (Boris Karloff, Frankenstein) is executed for a crime that he didn’t commit. After the execution, a brilliant scientist (Edmund Gwenn, The Skin Game) brings the dead man back to life with devastating consequences.

Reaction & Thoughts:

What happens when a film studio, Warner Bros., known for gangster films hires one of cinema’s top horror actors? Well, you end up with a movie that’s part crime melodrama, part supernatural spook-fest — The Walking Dead fuses gangster clichés with horror tropes in a playful, seamless manner.

The Walking Dead was stylishly directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca). This is Curtiz’s fourth (The Mad Genius, Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum are the other three), and last, horror movie. The director uses Dutch angles to convey a warped sense of reality. I’m usually against these types of visual tricks — I’m a purist who believes the camera shouldn’t call attention to itself — but the tilted shots do fit the story rather well. There is also a wonderful “resurrection” scene.

Like most horror films from the era, The Walking Dead has an anti-science streak that I always find interesting if troublesome. The idea here is that there should be limits to scientific research. I definitely agree, but the movie goes one step further and mistakenly conflates scientific curiosity with ungodliness. It’s, perhaps, something carried over from 19th century literature like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, two cautionary tales about scientific hubris.

Today, thanks to writers like Michael Crichton and Philip K. Dick, the fear regarding scientific research has metamorphosed into tech-anxiety. Cinema has reflected these changes quite well; another example of the symbiotic relationship between literature & cinema. The Walking Dead combines Victorian morality with the social and economic malaise of the 1930s, a curious experiment that works better than expected.

The film also contains one of Boris Karloff’s very best performances. It belongs right up there next to his monster (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein), his centuries-old mummy (The Mummy), and his grave robber (The Body Snatcher). Karloff’s performance is an amazing collection of pathos and mannerisms. His body language is particularly brilliant — he could have been a great mime! The rest of cast is good, but this is Karloff’s show.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Walking Dead is a genre-hybrid glued together by Karloff’s magnificent performance. For whatever reasons, the film isn’t as well-known as other Karloff horror movies. I thought it was an interesting, fun movie that I recommend to both fans of Warners’ gritty gangster films and viewers who enjoy old Universal horror movies.

P.S. This is part of my annual October Horror Movie Challenge.


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