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Bringing the dead back to life was an extremely popular horror movie theme of the thirties and forties and Boris Karloff could certainly lay claim to being the king of this specialized genre. Between 1936 and 1941, he made seven films in which he either played a mad scientist experimenting with corpses or an avenging zombie: The Walking Dead (1936), The Man Who Lived Again (1936), The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), The Man With Nine Lives (1940), Before I Hang (1940), Black Friday (1940), and The Devil Commands (1941).
The best of these was easily The Walking Dead (1936) in which he was cast as John Elman, a recently paroled convict who is framed for a murder and condemned to die in the electric chair. Despite frantic last minute efforts to save him from his fate, Elman is electrocuted but later brought back to life by Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), a scientist known for his experiments reviving dead animals. Needless to say, Elman's return from the beyond spooks the gangsters who framed him and the "living dead man" comes calling on each one of them, resulting in a series of mysterious deaths.
Part gangster melodrama, part supernatural thriller, The Walking Dead was the second collaboration between director Michael Curtiz and Boris Karloff. Their first film together was The Mad Genius (1931) which was the result of a casting misunderstanding. Curtiz later told Karloff: "The reason I called you in was because I thought you actually were a Russian. Your name certainly sounded Russian! When you came in you seemed so anxious to get the job that I decided to let you have it!"
Curtiz was no stranger to the horror genre and had already proven his expertise in this arena with two superb thrillers - Doctor X (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). The Walking Dead is equally evocative with its Depression era setting, Hal Mohr's expressionistic cinematography, and Karloff's eerie presence. As for the bizarre medical equipment used in Elman's resurrection scene, it was a real device known as the Lindbergh Heart which functioned as a mechanical circulating system. The aviator pioneer Charles A. Lindbergh developed it with the assistance of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Alexis Carrel and several researchers.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Producer: Lou Edelman
Screenplay: Ewart Adamson, Peter Milne, Robert Andrews, Lillie Hayward
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Editing: Thomas Pratt
Art Direction: Hugh Reticker
Cast: Boris Karloff (John Ellman), Ricardo Cortez (Nolan), Warren Hull (Jimmy), Robert Strange (Merritt), Joseph King (Judge Shaw), Edmund Gwenn (Dr. Evan Beaumont), Barton MacLane (Loder).
BW-66m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford
The Walking Dead (1936)
In 1936, Boris Karloff took a sabbatical from his longtime home base at Universal to make films for Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, the short-lived Grand National, and Gaumont in Great Britain. At Warners, Karloff was teamed with director Michael Curtiz for The Walking Dead (1936), a tale of vengeance from beyond the grave that seems at once tailor-made for the star of Frankenstein (1931) and yet something completely different. In The Invisible Ray (1936), Karloff had played a mad scientist who kills his enemies by radioactive touch; in The Walking Dead, he is a wrongly condemned man who survives his execution as a shuffling, dead-eyed instrument of divine punishment - causing the deaths of the men who framed him for murder without laying a finger on them. However it may seem torn from the pages of Tales from the Crypt, The Walking Dead is a potent morality bordering on religious homily. Curtiz squeezes the maximum effect from his limited budget thanks to director of photography Hal Mohr's eerie use of shadows. Mohr had been the first Academy Award nominee ever to win by write-in vote (for A Midsummer Night's Dream ) and picked up his second Oscar for Universal's the Phantom of the Opera (1943). Curtiz was at this point between collaborations with Errol Flynn, having completed Captain Blood (1935) and pointed towards The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) - with his most famous film, Casablanca (1942) six years down the road.
By Richard Harland Smith