In 1936, Warner Brothers released a (now) little-known film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Boris Karloff, the title of which is nonetheless very well-known: The Walking Dead. I watched it recently because . . . well, because of the title! It turned out to be pretty interesting—and actually quite relevant to fans of AMC’s The Walking Dead and zombie fans in general.
Karloff plays John Ellman, a man who is framed by a group of corrupt city leaders for the murder of a judge. Two witnesses of the murder come forward to clear Ellman in the minutes before his scheduled execution—but, they’re too late. It turns out, however, that they work for a man, Dr. Evan Beaumont (Edward Gwenn), who just happens to be able to reanimate the dead, and who is desperate to find out what secrets lie beyond the grave. Beaumont brings Ellman back to life in a process that involves the standard test tubes and jolts of electricity. Although apparently alive, Ellman has virtually no memory—indeed little consciousness at all. But he does seem uncannily able to recognize the men who framed him. He sets out on a course of revenge.
The Walking Dead is clearly one of the spate of films produced in the 1930s to capitalize on the phenomenal success of Universal Studio’s Frankenstein (1931), directed by James Whale. In fact, the film beats the viewer on the head with references to Whale’s film—and not only with the presence of Karloff, who played Frankenstein’s famous “monster.” The scene in which Ellman is brought back to life is virtually identical to the monster’s animation, complete with Dr. Beaumont’s climactic declaration: “He’s alive!” (reiterating with a difference Henry Frankenstein’s “It’s alive!). Karloff’s post-death performance evokes the monster in virtually every scene—his appearance, his halting speech and gait, his trek through a graveyard, his endearing sense of being utterly lost, alone, abandoned. (In a not-very-good film, Karloff’s performance really does stand out.)
The Walking Dead’s look back to Frankenstein reminds us that Mary Shelley’s novel (1818) and Whale’s film are two of the original zombie stories. The Walking Dead is undoubtedly another link in that chain. Whereas the monster in Frankenstein was assembled from several bodies, John Ellman is reanimated as “himself”—hence the shift from “It’s alive!” to “He’s alive!” Ellman is literally, as the title of the film makes clear, the walking dead. And while much has been written about White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) as early zombie films, there is scant mention of The Walking Dead. It deserves a place in the zombie canon, though.
In part, I think the lack of attention The Walking Dead has received as zombie film is because Ellman isn’t completely “mindless.” He retains some slight sense of his former self in his ability to know who framed and thus who killed him. As he says more than once as he confronts those who sent him to the electric chair: “Why did you have me killed?” Because the standard zombie of post-1968 film and TV has no “mind,” they have no ability to ask that particular question.
That Ellman does have that ability sets him off on the single-minded revenge that drives the film—and this is where, I think, The Walking Dead becomes a significant link in the zombie narrative chain. It draws our attention to the motive of revenge.
Revenge is a powerful force—and at least one recent novel and film suggests it has the power to overcome death. Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, The Revenant (which means a spirit or force that returns from the dead), made into a 2015 film directed by Alejandro G. Iňárritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is centered on a man left for dead on the western frontier after a bear attack. Hugh Glass literally overcomes death through his will to seek vengeance on those who abandoned him: “they had killed him. Murdered him, as surely as a knife in the heart or a bullet in the brain. Murdered him, except he would not die. Would not die, he vowed, because he would live to kill his killers.” Like Ellman in The Walking Dead, Glass comes from beyond the grave to ask the question: “why did you kill me?” And to punish those whom he asks.
Now zombies generally, as I said, don’t ask this question since they are, in popular incarnation, not sentient. But The Walking Dead made me think about how zombies could represent a collective force for vengeance. Their sole impetus, after all, is to kill and consume the living—as if they were angry, as if they were resentful that some still live while they are “dead.”
Zombies don’t (and can’t) enact a personal vengeance (like Ellman and Glass) but they can be seen as a force of a more impersonal vengeance: they are the “have-nots” out to get those who have (life). In a way they are not just a force of vengeance but of envy, driven by a profound schadenfreude, driven only to render the living as miserable as they are themselves.
I think the political resonance of the function of the zombie as resentful impersonal vengeance is particularly apparent in season 6 of AMC’s The Walking Dead. As the zombie hordes sweep over the expensive gated community of Alexandria, where houses (in pre-apocalyptic days) sold for $800,000 and up, they embody (visually, metaphorically) a collective and vicarious form of revenge on the “haves.”
So Curtiz’s The Walking Dead seems like an important part of zombie history, then, in that it not only forges a link to the earlier Frankenstein narrative, but also because it alerts us to the role of revenge when the dead walk again.