The Walking Dead (1936) poster

The Walking Dead (1936)


USA. 1936.


Director – Michael Curtiz, Screenplay – Ewart Adamson, Robert Andrews, Lillie Hayward & Peter Milne, Story – Ewart Anderson & Joseph Fields, Photography (b&w) – Hal Mohr, Art Direction – Hugh Reticker. Production Company – Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc..


Boris Karloff (John Elman), Ricardo Cortez (Nolan), Edmund Gwenn (Dr Evan Beaumont), Marguerite Churchill (Nancy), Warren Hull (Jimmy), Barton MacLane (Loder), Henry O’Neill (District Attorney Werner), Joseph Sawyer (Trigger Smith), Paul Harvey (Blackstone), Robert Strange (Merritt), Joseph King (Judge Roger Shaw)


A cabal of crooked lawyers conspire to get rid of Judge Shaw. To this end, they hire John Elman, a man who has just been released from jail after being sentenced by the judge for ten years on a murder charge. Elman is sent with orders to watch the judge’s place but this is a set-up where the crooked lawyers contrive to shoot the judge and place the body in Elman’s car. Elman is duly arrested and sentenced to the electric chair. He pleads his innocence and for two witnesses, Jimmy and his girlfriend Nancy, both assistants to Dr Beaumont, to come forward. When Beaumont learns of this, he steps up to try and stop the execution but is too late. Afterwards, Beaumont retrieves Elman’s body and performs an experimental operation that revives Elman from the dead. Elman comes around but his memory is blank. As they try and help Elman back to lead a regular life, he becomes supernaturally possessed and is driven to kill those who conspired to send him to the electric chair.

From the outset, one should state that this should not be confused with nor has anything in common with tv’s massively popular zombie series The Walking Dead (2010-22). At a very strained connection, both Walking Dead’s feature people brought back from the dead but that is about it. Even then the methods widely differ – tv’s The Walking Dead is about masses of the dead risen as zombies overrunning the world; this The Walking Dead is about a single executed prisoner brought back from the dead by a well-meaning scientist and setting out to exact justice against those who wrongly condemned him. Indeed, at the point The Walking Dead 1936 was made, the Zombie Film as we know it would not exist for another three decades.

It is also worth noting that The Walking Dead was the first film to use the plot about an executed person coming back from the electric chair to take revenge on his executors. Several decades later, Wes Craven made Shocker (1989) on this same theme and it was followed by a cluster of similar films with the likes of The Chair (1989), The Horror Show (1989) and The First Power (1990). The main difference between The Walking Dead and these others is that this makes Boris Karloff’s killer a sympathetic figure who is wrongly convicted and exacting just desserts against those who set him up, whereas all these other films portray the undead killer as a monstrous supernatural figure and those being killed as innocents.

The Walking Dead may also feature the only scientist in the history of Mad Scientist Films who is not actually mad. Rather Edmund Gwenn, who went on to play Santa in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), seems a decent chap who actually tries everything in his power to prevent Karloff’s execution and then labours to return him to life. It is rather amusing today to see the technology being used in the operation. Reviving Karloff seems to involve his being placed him on a bed that seesaws the body up and down as Van de Graaf generators arc electrical bolts all around, while Edmund Gwenn monitors the heartbeat wearing a stethoscope that consists of a set of radio headphones and a box that is held by the nurse, while everything is displayed on a monitor that looks like an x-ray display screen where a glowing heart shape pulses.

Boris Karloff as the resurrected John Elman in The Walking Dead (1936)
Boris Karloff as the resurrected John Elman

Boris Karloff was reportedly not happy with the role because he considered the character too close to the one he played in Frankenstein (1931), the film that had turned him into a horror icon. Despite sitting inside the mad science genre that Frankenstein inspired, The Walking Dead plays out more as a work of Supernatural Retribution where you could easily remove the mad science from the equation and regard Karloff’s character as someone like the title character in The Crow (1994). Karloff is revived and then it is commented: “He seems to be driven by strange impulses as if he were the instrument of some supernatural power.” Indeed, his final despatch of the guilty parties at the cemetery comes with the repeated line “The Lord Our God is a jealous god,” from which we are to assume that Karloff’s resurrection comes by divine agency in order to exact justice – although it is not entirely clear in this circumstance who The Almighty is jealous of.

For the first 20 minutes, the style of the film is clipped, unexceptional drama that was typical of the era. The action is quick and curtailed with little that is remarkable about it. In the latter half, director Michael Curtiz shows off with lighting effects. There’s a great shot of Karloff waiting in his cell where the bars are starkly highlit in shadow against the walls while a ceiling fan sits in the foreground (something that almost seems to prefigure the stylistics of Film Noir).

There is a particularly good scene during the recital as Boris Karloff sits at the piano and the camera partially gauzes his face out, distorting it while it circles around the others seated in the audience where the faces of the guilty parties are highlighted. In another scene, Karloff enters the apartment of the thug Trigger (Joseph Sawyer), lurching towards the camera and knocking over the lamp, creating exaggerated shadows on the wall as he attacks. It is this stylistic affect that elevates the film considerably.

Michael Curtiz (1886-1962) was a Hungarian director who moved to Hollywood during the 1920s. There he embarked on a successful career that included classics such as such as Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945). Curtiz also made a number of films that fall into genre material with a lost version of Alraune (1918) in his native Hungary and the Hollywood films The Mad Genius (1931) with John Barrymore as a control freak ballet master, the mad scientist film Doctor X (1932) and the original wax museum horror Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).

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