Friday, 8 November 2013

The Walking Dead (1936) - review

1936 (USA)

Contains Spoilers.

Ask me a year ago whether a frankenstein-esque film such as this had a place on my oh so precious zombie only blog and I'd have shook my head, resolutely quoting my ideological stance that zombie equals reanimated dead and definitely not resurrected and alive. Today I'm a little more relaxed, my naive dogmatic definitions shaped in the post Romero era have crumbled a little and while I still hold to notion zombies and deadness is immutable I'm a little more amenable to whether a lack of pulse is strictly necessary.

Boris Karloff plays John Ellman, a pianist and unfortunate wretch who has recently been released from a ten year stretch. Desperate for employment he becomes the unwitting patsy for a group of wealthy racketeers who see his release as the perfect opportunity to rid themselves of the troublesome Judge Shaw (Joseph King) who has become quite the thorn in their side. Hired by Trigger (Joseph Sawyer), their hit-man for hire, Ellman, who was originally convicted by Shaw, is tasked to wait outside his house and make notes on the judges coming and goings, as if a PI assistant helping establish whether he's engaged in an extramarital affair. It's the perfect set-up. Shaw's body is dumped in the back of his car along with the murder weapon, his note book makes it look like he's been stalking the judge and he has the motivatin as Shaw was responsible for his own sentence ten years earlier. As if this all wasn't enough Nolan (Ricardo Cortez), who is really working alongside the racketeers is put in charge of his defence. His death by electric chair was really quite inevitable.

It's time we mentioned Jimmy (Warren Hull) and Nancy (Marguerite Churchill), two medical assistants who happened to see everything. Despite being threatened to keep quiet they confess all and though they're too late to save Ellman, Nolan makes sure of that, there is a plan B. B stands for Dr. Evan Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), their boss, who is researching artificial hearts and resuscitation, and because of the great injustice that now appears to have been befallen Ellman agrees with the district attorney and prison warden that it's worth a shot to see if he can be brought back to life.

Director Michael Curtiz depiction of Ellman being brought back to life is sophisticated, modern and understated. Yes there's vials bubbling and electric currents but there's no clap of thunder, hunchbacks pulling levers or screams. The reanimation sequence is clean, scientific and open; indeed Karloff himself was vocal about distancing the cinematic experience to Frankenstein which he filmed five years earlier. There's no stitching together of human pieces and Ellman comes back alive as if waking from a deep sleep to a cheque for $500,000 compensation, his picture in the paper and a guardian to help him back on his feet. So why am I reviewing this? Because the Ellman resurrected is not the Ellman who died.

He has no memories of his life before, not even his name. He can speak and understand, and he does demonstrate a new short term memory but he has no recollection of his death or, which is of particular interest to Dr. Beaumont, that period he was dead. His movements are also now sluggish and limp, and he has a crooked neck and he seems distant, like what has come back is some kind of echo and not the same full soul that departed. He's more than an echo though, and whether one interprets it religiously (there are many instances of scripture quoted), or scientifically, or something else, Ellman is now very much some kind of Ghost of Christmas Past with the knowledge and ability to directly confront all those who engineered his death.

It's a hard and strange one to interpret. There are hints of the old Ellman; he can still play piano, but what has returned, if it is Ellman at all is entirely focused on retribution. One by one he confronts each racketeer asking them "why did you have me killed?" and rather than taking the cheap and easy option portraying him as some knife wielding murderer out for revenge, Curtiz instead portrays Ellman as some untouchable innocent who holds some stark mirror up to the souls of those who caused his death. There's an 'It's a Wonderful Life / Christmas Carol' feel, and it's more subtle and more coherent. Ellman isn't a monster; he's the question, and the omnipotent knowledge and truth the murderers can't escape. Trigger falls back shooting himself, Blackstone runs away into an oncoming train, Merit has a heart attack then falls out his bedroom window; each racketeers' reaction to being confronted is different, some even try to mount an offensive first, but each of their deaths seems inevitable and self afflicted, as if Ellman is now some angel of justice obeying some grand design.

Then again he might not be. There's enough ambiguity, and divine retribution after-all is a bit old testament. He might actually be some primal damaged reflection of Ellman who has seen the infinite nothing of death and just wants to kill his enemies; I don't know. Karloff's character reminded me a little of Andy from Dead of Night (Deathdream), of someone who ought not to have returned. There also a bit of The Returned, the idea of the restless dead who aren't merely apparitions. Either way he might not be a 'ZOMBIE' in any traditional sense, but it's certainly of genre interest and he does die and is resurrected/reanimated, he does stagger towards each racketeer with a vacant look and arms outstretched, and he's definitely not who he was before with what seems like a prescribed agenda, so there's enough going on to warrant a look. Also it's called 'The Walking Dead', and that's something.

The Walking Dead is a delightful piece of cinema. It's beautifully shot with a great script, great score by Bernhard Kaun with believable sets and confident first rate acting. The story of Ellman is poignant and tragic with a beautiful ambiguity that leaves quite many unanswered questions, but no sense of being cheated. One of the best films I've seen from the 1930's The Walking Dead is a delightful, almost contemporary horror that never feels as old as it is and it's thoroughly recommended, 8/10.



  1. Congratulations! You're a recipient of The Sunshine Award!

    1. Thanks ever so much, this is really appreciated! I'll see about passing it on :)