Unbeknownst to too many, zombie films are older than The Night of the Living Dead. While few pre-1968 zombie films aren't as good or as groundbreaking as George A. Romero's classic (I Walked with a Zombie and White Zombie are the only ones that even come close), they did help to establish the shambling dead as viable monsters for public consumption. Some even helped cross-pollination efforts between horror and early sci-fi. The Walking Dead from 1936 is one such effort, plus this early zombie film even throws gangsters and political corruption into the mix, thus making it a synthesis of 1930s popular culture.
Directed by Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian-born director who would later earn an Oscar for directing Casablanca), The Walking Dead tells the pitiful story of John Ellman (played by Boris Karloff). A one-time loser who was sent up for a crime he did not commit, Ellman finds a job as a private eye under the guidance of "Trigger" Smith (played by Joe Sawyer). For one night, Trigger hires Ellman to observe the house of Judge Roger Shaw (played by Joe King), the hardline lawman who was responsible not only for Ellman's earlier conviction, but also for the conviction of Stephen Martin (played by Kenneth Harlan), a local gangster with deep connections.
As it turns out, Trigger, a terrified dandy named Merritt (played by Robert Strange), a dapper businessman named Blackstone (played by Paul Harvey), a heavy named Loder (played by Barton MacLane), and a crooked defense attorney named Nolan (played by Ricardo Cortez) are all part of Martin's crew. When Judge Shaw puts their friend away for longer than expected, all five want revenge. So, using Ellman as their fall guy, the gang murders Judge Shaw before dumping his body into Ellman's coupe. The story that they want the press to write up is that Ellman killed Judge Shaw for putting him in the big house a decade before.
For the most part the newspapers swallow the story. And since Nolan acts as Ellman's defense attorney, the poor guy's fate is all but sealed. The one glimmer of hope is the fact that a young couple witnessed Trigger and company putting Judge Shaw's lifeless body into Ellman's car on the night of the murder. Sadly, at the trial, the young couple are in the audience, but hesitate to act. Finally, on the night of Ellman's execution, Jimmy (played by Warren Hull) and Nancy (played by Marguerite Churchill) tell their employer Dr. Evan Beaumont (played by Edmund Gwenn) what they saw. Dr. Beaumont first summons the attorneys Nolan and D.A. Werner (played by Henry O'Neill), then all five place a call to the warden overseeing Ellman's final night on earth. Although word reaches the prison, it comes too late. Ellman sets off on the big sleep as an innocent man framed for murder.
Ellman gets a second lease on life, however. Dr. Beaumont proves to be a mad scientist (a harmless one, though) by brining Ellman back to life. Besides a skunk-like streak in his hair and a general listlessness, the newly reanimated Ellman seems just like the old Ellman. Then one day Nolan shows up, which sends Ellman into a rage. Somehow, Nolan's face triggered something in Ellman's dead, yet alive memory. Despite not knowing about the conspiracy against him while he was alive, the reanimated Ellman now knows all about the men who framed him for murder. One by one, he kills them off by filling them with so much terror that they wind up dying in gruesome accidents. One man falls out of a window, while two more die in a fiery auto wreck.
In between his revenge visits, Ellman spends time at the local cemetery. It's not until the film's final moments, when Ellman is seen lying halfway between death and life because of gunshots pumped into his belly by Loder, that we understand why he's so attracted to the graveyard. Dead should stay dead, it seems, and Ellman wants to go back to being just another dead guy. While Dr. Beaumont wants to keep him alive in order to learn the ultimate secret of existence, Ellman reminds us all that our God is a jealous God. What's dead should stay dead. And thus Ellman goes to away on an extended vacation for a second time.
An underrated gem of a film, The Walking Dead is part horror, part sci-fi, part hardboiled, and part mystery. Although Curtiz's well-known brilliance is a little dim here, The Walking Dead is nevertheless a capable film featuring decent acting (Karloff, of course, is the main draw and the best man on the screen). Any pre-Romero zombie history should start at White Zombie, but any pre-Romero zombie history that does not include The Walking Dead is bad history, indeed.