“The Walking Dead” (1936)


In 1935 Boris Karloff went to work for Warner Brothers on the film “The Walking Dead.” It’s a black and white film that was given 18 days to shoot but overshot by 6 days. The movie is part thriller, part gangster saga, and has a religious statement. Filming actually started on his 48th birthday (Mank).

Plot In A Nutshell

Karloff plays a down-on-his-luck ex-con and musician. He’s looking for any work that he can find. Sadly, a group of gangsters including corrupted officials want to knock off a judge and pin it on Karloff’s John Ellman. Ellman is executed for his crime before witnesses come forth to save him. The witnesses work in a lab and turn to their mentor for guidance. Once dead, Beaumont, the chief doctor (played by Edmund Gwenn), decides to take him and attempts to revive him. He wants to bring him back from the dead. When he is brought back, he remembers nothing but how to play music. However, soon he is lead by supernatural knowing to those that framed him. Each die but in a way not caused by Ellman. As Ellman longs for peace, Dr. Beaumont desires the meaning of death and what is like beyond the grave.


Inspirations for the Film

The director, Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), of the film was inspired by military headlines, the electric chair, Lindberg Heart, and a doctor’s who had conducted experiments to bring dogs back from the dead (Mank).

Plot In Detail

The film opens with a gangster on trial and a judge deliberating over his ruling. Judge Shaw is bold and issues a guilty charge. Of course, this means the gangsters are going to plot to take out Judge Shaw. According to Greg Mank, film historian, that censors in Quebec and Australia edited the scene and US censors required the film not to use the terms “rub out” or “bump off (Mank).”

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Censorship ran a muck across the world at this time and threatened films, horror films in particular. Horror Movies were under attack. The Walking Dead was censored by Quebec and Australia. It was banned outright by countries such as Singapore, Finland, and Switzerland. Singapore was the only one to give an exact reason for the ban – it was too gruesome. (Mank)
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The Walking Dead is a film that utilizes German Impressionism. In fact, German Expressionism influenced horror film and film noir greatly. Through the use of dynamic camera angles and the use light and shadows, Director Curtiz and his cinematographer, Hal Mohr, make a visually arresting film. Pay close attention to the opening and ending credits as well as Karloff’s John Ellman is imprisoned.
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While the gangsters are playing pool and plotting, John Ellman shows up to acquire a job. Ellman (Boris Korloff) is a musician just out of prison over striking and accidentally killing a man over being overly familiar with his wife. The gang plans to set up Ellman for the assassination they were concocting. It was Judge Shaw that sent Ellman to prison. Gang leaders Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) and Loder (Barton McClane) see Ellman as the perfect patsy. Before events are set into motion, we are introduced to Jimmy (Warren Hull) and Nancy (Marguerite Churchill) as well as Dr. Evan Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn). Jimmy and Nancy will end up witnessing events and seeing Ellman be framed. Unfortunately, they are too scared to do anything. Ellman professes his innocence but there is a motive and circumstantial evidence that everyone is ready to believe over his innocent pleas. Thus, Ellman is tried and given a death sentence, while the real criminals rejoice. Eventually, Jimmy and Nancy get through to the Governor but by the time the Governor gets in touch with the warden, Ellman is dead.

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For fans of classic movies, Edmund Gwenn went on to win an Oscar for his role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Gwenn appeared in more than eighty films during his career. He’s also famous being movies such as Of Human Bondage and in 1954, Gwenn played Dr. Harold Medford in the classic science fiction film Them! with James Arness and James Whitmore (Wikipedia).
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Dr. Beaumont uses this opportunity to secure Ellman’s body for his experiments. Beaumont succeeds in reviving John Ellman, but he is different man. He has no memories of his death and is altered by a twisting of the body and a solid white streak of hair on his forehead. The only thing that seems to connect him to his former self is music. When he isn’t playing music, Ellman looks like a melancholic, lost soul.

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The reviving of Ellman takes place in very busy lab and utilizes electricity – an allusion to Frankenstein. Invoking the memory of Frankenstein is Gwenn’s use of the words “He’s alive. He will live.”
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As Ellman is recuperating under the care of Nancy, Nolan actually visits Ellman. Ellman stops his music and shouts, “GET OUT!”. While he has no memory, he says he knows that he is his enemy. He feels it.

On a particular evening, Ellman plays for a large crowd that includes the very people who framed him. As Ellman plays, his music becomes stronger, clashing, and harsh all the while he stares intently into the crowd, gazing at the thugs. While they weren’t very threatened of Ellman before, his strong presence and gaze makes them think he knows.

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Music plays an important part in the story of John Ellman. Ellman’s music represents his humanity. His humanity, his dignity that he holds onto. He isn’t afraid to use it to try and beg for a job. This music revisits him when his waits to be executed. Ellman tells the Warden, “You take away my life and offer me a favor in return. That’s what I call a bargain.” Ellman chooses to hear his favorite music. When he dies and is revived, music is the only thing he truly responds to. He knows nothing of what has happened to him. In his music he finds his peace but it is also a means of accusing those that have wronged him during the scene were Ellman plays piano for a crowd including those that framed him for the death of Judge Shaw.
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Murders of the thugs begin to happen. However, never a moment does Ellman lay a finger on them. Eventually Ellman flees to a cemetary, wanders in the rain in the cemetary and takes shelter in the caretaker’s residence. Nancy goes to find him and is followed by Loder and Nolan.

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When you watch the film pay attention to the lighting and shadowing of Karloff’s face. His face, especially eyes, is expressive, and it seems he is effortless in his expression. For a man who played in a lot of horror films, his eyes are never harsh but sad, sympathetic.
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Nancy pleads with Ellman. Ellman says it’s quiet here and that he belongs here. Nancy rushes off to call Dr. Beaumont as Loder and Nolan look on. Ellman comes out of the house because he supernaturally senses that Loder and Nolan are near. As he advances, he shot at by Nolan. At first the shots miss so Loder grabs the gun and shoots Ellman. While Ellman has supernatural senses, he’s not immortal. He succumbs and crumples to the ground as Nancy screams in horror.

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Much like the dog that came back to life in Dr. Cornish’s real life experiments, Ellman agonizes until he succumbs to his death and finds true peace (Mank).
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Nolan and Loder speed off while Nancy pleads for the doctor to rush because Ellman is dying.

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Marguerite Churchill is a wonderful leading lady. Marguerite’s Nancy is tender and has a satisfying and endearing relationship to Karloff‘s Ellman.
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Beaumont and Jimmy arrive with others in tow. Beaumont hopes to learn Ellman’s secrets before he dies. He pleads with him to reveal what he knows. He wanted to know how he knew he was framed. Beaumont tells Ellman that the reason he brought Ellman back was to know the truth of death. Karloff speaks the most important lines from this film: “Leave the dead to their maker. The Lord our God is a jealous God.” The doctor counters with “What is death?” At this moment, the scene is interrupted by the scene of Nolan and Loder driving fast and erratically in the rain. Loder loses control and they crash into an electrical pole. They are electrocuted. Irony. We see the Doctor pleading again with Ellman to answer his question. Ellman says, “I think I can. After the shock…I seemed to feel peace.. and..” Ellman dies. Nancy cries and Jimmy comforts her saying that Ellman is happier now. Meanwhile, the doctor announces, “It will never be known. The Lord our god is indeed a jealous god.” The picture focuses on the rainy cemetery background and the credits. In the credits we know see the looming shadow of Ellman/Karloff ascend.

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Karloff helped to find the Screen Actors Guild. He also influenced the direction of The Walking Dead, whose script was a work-in-progress during the entire shoot.
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Final Thoughts

For a movie shot within only 24 days, I am impressed by it’s story elements and consistency. Yes, the plot is rather simplistic but Karloff takes this vehicle and speeds away with it. His expressions, his attention to detail, and his input gave Ellman life – a pitable soul, a character to whom life had been unfair to. We rejoice in his peace when he finds it. Even though Gwenn does enough not to make his character a mad scientist. This film still comes off anti-science, in a way I understand the times but rather it being a religious consideration, I think it is just think it’s respectful to let the dead have their peace. Disregarding my dislike for things that paint science badly, I really like this film. Even I can understand that sometimes Science is not right in what it seeks to do and this is the human element versus Science’s fault.

Resources: The Walking Dead (1936), Film Historian Greg Mank, Wikipedia

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