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I have in my possession one of those two-disc, four-movie sets, imaginatively entitled Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics. The movies are actually anything but, but the set has served me well over the years; last Hubrisween, there was Zombies on Broadway. A mere 17 days ago, Frankenstein 1970. Back in the murkier depths of the archives, there was You’ll Find Out, which in retrospect, though I had problems with it, was the high point of the set thus far. Then I watched The Walking Dead with dreadfully low expectations, and to my surprise found an underappreciated gem.
You have no idea how rare that truly is.
Warner Brothers was having incredible success with their gangster movies at this point, so it’s little surprise that The Walking Dead opens just like one – crusading judge Shaw (Joe King) convicts a racketeer, despite all the anonymous threats he’s been receiving. The other racketeers meet to decide what to do; killing this judicious killjoy is the obvious course of action, but they need a fall guy, and down-on-his-luck ex-con pianist John Elman, convicted (perhaps unjustly) by Shaw years ago for manslaughter, seems ripe for that role.
Interspersed with this is the laboratory of Dr Beaumont (future Santa Claus Edmund Gwenn), who has kept a human heart beating in a jar for two weeks. His two lovebird assistants, Nancy and Jimmy (Marguerite Churchill and Warren Hull) head out on a date, which is where our two storylines will intersect.
The gangster’s plot relies on their house hit man, Trigger (Joe Sawyer) to pose as a detective who hires the desperate Elman to watch Judge Shaw’s house; Nancy and Jimmy see the hoods deposit Shaw’s dead body in Elman’s car, and get threatened with death if they don’t keep their mouths shut.
The head of the racketeers, the crooked lawyer Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) acts as Elman’s defense, insuring his conviction and date with the electric chair. Nancy’s conscience finally wins out over her fear of death, and she tells Beaumont what they saw that fatal night. Nolan manages to draw everything out just long enough that the phone call from the governor arrives too late to save Elman’s life. Beaumont insists on delaying the autopsy and claims Elman’s body,
This has gone from noirish gangster flick to horror movie with fine efficiency, and here is where The Walking Dead actually begins to distinguish itself. Beaumont will, of course, bring Elman back to life, but the process as shown is fairly unique. There is the usual folderol with electricity, but we’ve already seen (and are now shown again) a pretty accurate model of the Lindbergh Heart Pump, a device that could keep organs functioning apart from the body (Yes, that Lindbergh). Then Karloff is set on a sort of teeterboard, which rocks his body back and forth, and the commentary track by film historian Greg Mank points out this is based on the fairly contemporaneous work by Dr. Robert Cornish, who apparently revived a dog five minutes after its death. Jank goes on to relate that the dog lived for another eight hours, but seemed to suffer a sort of waking nightmare, constantly whining and barking. My research doesn’t support that, but my research was done pretty quickly, and besides – that does support what comes after in the movie.
The post-execution Elman (now with a sinister shock of white hair) shambles about in a near-catatonic state, except when he is near a piano – he remembers how to play one very well. He recognizes the District Attorney (who suspects how Elman was railroaded), but does not regard him as an enemy; on the other hand, he also recognizes Nolan and knows he is an enemy – though he does not remember why. Beaumont chalks this up to an inoperable blood clot in the brain, although, just to help the audience along, he mentions Elman sometimes acts like “the tool of some supernatural force.” (Fine scientist you are, Beaumont!)
Though he may be right about the supernatural force, as Elman begins improbably tracking down the criminals responsible for his execution, often appearing almost miraculously, when least expected. This is another distinguishing characteristic of the movie: we are primed to expect Elman to exact some sweet, painful justice on these bad guys, but in every case, all he does is slowly advance on them, asking “Why did you kill me?” and it’s their own blind, guilty panic that undoes them. The triggerman trips over a table and shoots himself. One runs in front of a speeding locomotive. One has a heart attack and for good measure, falls out a window.
In each instance, Elman seems shocked and saddened by the outcome. Karloff should have patented his ability to shift from frightening to pathetic to sympathetic in the same scene.
There are other factors that elevate The Walking Dead above the norm. Beaumont’s conquering of death actually makes headlines around the world, counter to every other mad scientist we’ve seen (and provides another reason why the bad guys can’t just kill Elman again). When Nolan manages to get himself named Elman’s legal guardian, Beaumont prepares to operate on the blood clot, which he knows will kill Elman – this time, permanently – but also might finally unlock Elman’s memory so he can tell Beaumont what he really wants to know – what happens at the moment of death? That’s a plot thread I feel could have been given more time (as it was in the much later Brainstorm), but there’s little room for it in this movie’s slim 65 minutes.
So The Walking Dead was an extremely welcome surprise, subverting damn near all my expectations (well, except for Karloff being excellent. That goes without saying). A clue might have been offered to me when I noticed the director was Michael Curtiz, whose name you might recognize from other little pictures like Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood. He was no stranger to horror movies, either, as he also directed the original, excellent Dr. X. Apparently a stern taskmaster and more than a bit of a dick, his movies are often incredible, solid entertainment, and I’m now more than a little sorry that he and one of my favorite actors didn’t get together more often.
Speaking of Dr. X, it is more than a little telling that The Return of Dr. X, which we covered last week, started as a Karloff period piece but eventually devolved into a far stupider version of this movie, down to the shock of white hair and the weakened arm of the title character. Who would notice? they figured.
No trailer this time, but here’s Beaumont and the DA holding a piano recital to guilt trip the racketeers, which at least proves that somebody had read Hamlet: