The Walking Dead

Movie Information

In Brief: No, it has nothing whatever to do with flesh-munching zombies. Michael Curtiz's The Walking Dead (1936) is the director's return to the horror genre (and his last horror movie) after an absence of three years. It's a strange, not entirely successful mix of horror and gangsters. It's essentially a Boris Karloff vehicle made at the end of the first wave of horror. It presents Karloff as man wrongly executed for murder who is brought back from the dead by a not-really-mad doctor. The ad copy makes the film seem like he comes back get wreak vengeance on the men who framed him, but the film takes a surprising approach to that idea.    
Genre: Horror
Director: Michael Curtiz (Doctor X)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Ricardo Cortez, Edmund Gwenn, Marguerite Churchill, Warren Hull
Rated: NR



Michael Curtiz’s The Walking Dead is never going to be genuine classic of the horror genre (though some have made that claim). Rather, it’s an intriguing little B movie from the final days of the first wave of horror (1931-36), made just before the moratorium on horror pictures. (Ultimately, commerce won out over this “decency” campaign.) It is by no means in the same league as Curtiz’s horror classics — Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museim (1933) — and not even as interesting as his quasi-horror The Mad Genius (1931), a film in which Boris Karloff had a minor role. Well, this was 1936 and Karloff no longer was a minor player, but a bonafide above-the-title star. So what WB wanted for him was a vehicle — and what five credited writers came up with was a mix of gangsters (well, it was WB) and Frankenstein with some pretty preachy religious overtones. It misses greatness on nearly every level, but it is unfailingly interesting, and it has good performances.




Karloff plays John Ellman, an ex-con — and supposedly great musician who, on the evidence, only knows one piece of music — who is framed by racketeers for a murder they committed. As luck would have it, he goes to the chair just as his innocence is established, but waiting in the wings is kindly Dr. Beaumont — played by Kris Kringle himself, Edmund Gwenn — who has the ability to bring  him back from the dead. As usual in these movies, this isn’t the best plan. Not only is the revived Ellman pretty darn listless, but he’s gained a white streak in his hair (recalling the “Bride of Frankenstein”) and a cadaverous look. That look was achieved the same way Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster was  — by removing his bridgework. Of course, that was the whole point — to make Karloff look as close as possible to the Monster without inviting litigation from Universal.




More than just looking creepy, Ellman is creepy, since he has returned from the dead in a strange state of apparent omniscience. He knows who his friends are and more to the point who his enemies are — even those he’s never seen. This, of course, means he will exact his revenge on them, but the film handles this in an unusual manner where Ellman never touches his victims, but causes them to panic and manage to get themselves killed — a kind of divine retribution. It works more than it doesn’t, but it ultimately makes the film curiously muted. The film’s single best sequence is where Ellman sees all the men responsible for his death at a gathering where he plays the piano. Curtiz stages this as pure theater, employing lighting effects that are more dramatic than realistic. The ending is effective, too, but if, like Dr. Beaument, you’re hoping to find out what happens after death, forget it. You’re going to be fed some guff about God being a jealous God.

The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Walking Dead Thursday, May 29 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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