John Elman (Boris Karloff), The Walking Dead
By 1936, Karloff had continued to make a name for himself in Hollywood through genre films such as The Bride of Frankenstein, The Black Cat and The Raven. However, the winds of change were coming as horror films would all but disappear from the cinema until their return in 1939. Boris churned out 5 films in 1936, most with either mystery or sci-fi elements. Even the one true horror film, The Walking Dead, had sub-plots of crime bosses and racketeers. Despite that, it would turn out to be one of Karloff’s better efforts during the leaner years of the late 30s.
Karloff plays a musician named John Elman who has just been released from prison. He is looking for a job and makes the mistake of seeking out a crime boss for help. He ends up being a pawn used by them as a scapegoat for the murder of a prominent judge who was causing them trouble. Unfortunately, Elman is at the wrong place at the wrong time and, because the judge was the one who had sentenced him years earlier, he is arrested and, ultimately, sentenced to death. However, there were two witnesses that could prove his innocence. They come forward but Elman’s attorney, part of the criminal gang, is slow to respond, assuring Elman is put to death. This is where we enter Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street, Them) who has been studying the idea of bringing animals back to life. He succeeds in bringing Elman back but he is a changed man. His appearance has slightly altered and he now walks with a limp as well as losing some use of his left arm. One he sees his crooked attorney, he begins to hunt down those responsible for his death, one by one.
Karloff’s portrayal of Elman is clearly reminiscent of the slow moving zombies so prevalent in media today (including a little TV show bearing the same name of this movie). His appearance is not zombielike but more ghoulish and effective. He is a shell of a man with no memory but his strong connection to music is what shows Dr. Beaumont and others that there is still some of the real Elman left inside. The rest of the cast is strong but I must admit it is a bit jarring to see Edmund Gwenn. His voice always brings me back to that of his role as Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street.
The use of camera angles and shadows elevates this film from a standard B flick to something much better. This is not your standard mad doctor flick. The script is smartly written in regards to Elman being a sympathetic character despite his horrific appearance. His killing spree is really that of retribution and often times, the deaths are not directly caused by him but those he is seeking vengeance against. The weakest part of the film centers on the poorly developed characters of Jimmy and Nancy. The final act also requires a leap of faith as Elman seems to magically appear wherever the gangsters are. If you can move past these weaknesses, you’ll greatly enjoy The Walking Dead. I’ve enjoyed this one since discovering on TNT in the early 90s.
I highly recommend The Walking Dead, which is available on DVD along with four other Karloff and Lugosi films in the Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics set. I also strongly recommend you read the chapter dedicated to this film in Bryan Senn’s great book, Golden Horrors: An Illustrated Critical Filmography of Terror Cinema, 1931-1939. It is out-of-print but well worth tracking it down.