Dead Men Walk
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For decades Dead Men Walk (1943) has been a staple of late-night television and Public Domain video compilations, and has long been a tolerated "also ran" of classic horror film aficionados. Produced by PRC (aka Producers Releasing Corporation), the film suffers from the lumbering pace typical of Poverty Row films of the era; it clocks in at just over an hour in length but feels longer. Unlike many other low-budget shockers of the 1940s however, Dead Men Walk delivers a morbid, supernatural story rather than a watered-down mystery, and manages some creepily atmospheric photography and settings for its budget. It is also fondly remembered for performances by two well-regarded figures from the horror genre: George Zucco and Dwight Frye.
The script by Fred Myton clearly borrows heavily from Bram Stoker's novel Dracula as well as Universal Pictures' wildly popular 1931 adaptation starring Bela Lugosi. The interesting twist added to the premise is the notion of having the vampire and the vampire-hunter linked by birth as twins. Good vs. Evil tensions lend a Jekyll and Hyde aspect to the story as well. In a pre-credits sequence, we see a hand grab a book called History of Vampires and throw it in a fireplace. A disembodied head with spooky lighting is superimposed as it intones lines like, "You creatures of the light - how can you say with certainty what does or does not dwell within the limitless ocean of the night?" Such an introduction to "disbelievers" must have seemed quite corny to wartime viewers, a throwback to the early 1930s and to the spoken introduction that Universal Pictures felt was necessary in Frankenstein (1931), but seldom used since. One would think that audience members knew what they were getting into with a picture bearing a title like Dead Men Walk!
The credits are followed by a small-town funeral service, at which Dr. Lloyd Clayton (George Zucco) rises at the invitation of the minister to view the body of his brother, Elwyn Clayton (also Zucco). The town spinster, Kate (Fern Emmett), intrudes on the service and yells, "How can you defile this sacred house with the body of that evil man - that servant of the Devil?" Indeed, Elwyn practiced ancient sorcery and demonology, as Dr. Clayton explains to his niece Gayle (Mary Carlisle) and her fiancé, Dr. David Bently (Nedrick Young). As Lloyd burns his brother's papers, Elwyn's twisted servant Zolarr (Dwight Frye) tries to stop him and tells the Doctor that he knows his Master's death (via an off-screen plunge from a cliff) was not accidental, but deliberate murder. Later, Lloyd is even more shocked by the appearance of Elwyn himself, revived by Black Magic and now a vampire. "You'll know that I am no intangible figment of your imagination when you feel the weight of my hatred," Elwyn snarls, "Your life will be a torment - I'll strip you of everything you hold dear." Elwyn plans to drain the life from Gayle and Dr. Clayton is stymied in his attempts at vampire-hunting when David accuses him of local murders and gathers the townsfolk against him.
Dead Men Walk awkwardly plays with vampire lore; it is difficult to imagine, for example, why regeneration by Black Magic would result in blood-sucking as a side effect of becoming undead. George Zucco convinces as two separate but related personalities, although his Elwyn comes off better as a twisted sorcerer than as a Dracula-like figure. His performance is also undercut by the haste with which these Poverty Row quickies were shot; in both of the scenes in which Elwyn rises from his coffin, Zucco visibly struggles to get to his feet, something no self-respecting vampire should ever do. In addition to a lack of retakes, the low budget of the film takes its toll on the music score by Leo Erdody. There are a few original cues consisting of an odd mix of violin, flute and organ, but they are reused to the point of tedium and often during inappropriate scenes.
Dead Men Walk was the final film appearance of female lead Mary Carlisle. The blonde, blue-eyed Carlisle started in films in 1930, was named as a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1932 and can be seen in bit parts in several prestigious MGM films, including Grand Hotel (1932). She graduated to leading roles at studios such as Paramount, RKO and Columbia, and made a particular mark as the straight romantic interest or dutiful daughter in comedies such as College Humor (1933) with Jack Oakie, Handy Andy (1934) with Will Rogers, Kentucky Kernels (1934) starring Wheeler and Woolsey, and It's in the Air (1935) with Jack Benny. Her career did not progress in the direction she wanted, however, and by the early 1940s Carlisle found herself at low-budget studios like PRC and Republic Pictures. She retired shortly after marrying actor James Blakeley, who went on to become a production executive at Twentieth-Century Fox Television.
In an interview (in Filmfax magazine No. 16, August 1989), Carlisle discussed the differences between PRC and the major studios: "There was little time for lighting and rehearsing. Everything was different. On an A picture, a designer designs the wardrobe. At PRC, we'd go to wardrobe and pick out something that had already been worn two or three times on other pictures. ...It was the difference between a Rolls Royce and a Ford. We'd shoot a picture at PRC in anywhere from ten days to two weeks. They were quickie B's." Carlisle added, "I do remember that George Zucco couldn't have been nicer."
The stage-trained George Zucco had become largely typecast as a mad scientist-type by the early 1940s, despite his earlier supporting roles in such prestigious pictures as After the Thin Man (1936), Marie Antoinette (1938), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939, as Moriarty), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Zucco was a favorite at PRC, where his other horror titles included The Mad Monster (1942) with Glenn Strange, The Black Raven (1943), Fog Island (1945), and The Flying Serpent (1946).
Producer: Sigmund Neufeld
Director: Sam Newfield
Screenplay: Fred Myton
Cinematography: Jack Greenhalgh
Makeup: Harry Ross
Music: Leo Erdody
Film Editing: Holbrook N. Todd
Cast: George Zucco (Dr. Lloyd Clayton/Dr. Elwyn Clayton), Mary Carlisle (Gayle Clayton), Nedrick Young (Dr. David Bently), Dwight Frye (Zolarr), Fern Emmett (Kate), Robert Strange (Wilkins [Harper, in credits]), Hal Price (Sheriff), Sam Flint (Minister)
by John M. Miller