Schlock Value: Dead Men Walk (1943)
Greetings ghouls and gals! It’s officially #SpookySeason now, so for this week’s Schlock Value entry, I thought I’d keep the horror going. I did some digging through Mill Creek’s 50 Horror Classics set, and unearthed a fun little film from the early ‘40s. Dead Men Walk, released by Producers Releasing Corporation (part of Hollywood’s infamous B-movie studio collective known as Poverty Row), was one of many takes on the vampire film which had become incredibly popular since the release of Tod Browning’s Dracula in 1931. Directed by schlock veteran Sam Newfield and shot over the course of six days, Dead Men Walk stars genre regular George Zucco in a dual role as a pair of brothers, one good and one less so, and Mary Carlisle (One Frightened Night) in her final role.
Now, Poverty Row films are all B-movies in the truest sense in that they were all pretty cheap, quickly made genre films (many westerns and detective films) that were tacked on to better films to help sell a double feature. But that doesn’t mean they’re all steaming piles of garbage. As evidenced by Dead Men Walk, many of them are actually quite a bit of fun.
Dead Men Walk begins with a book entitled “The History of Vampires” being tossed into a fire as the spectral head of a narrator comes into focus. This head, played by an uncredited Forrest Taylor in a very Criswell-esque fashion, delivers a warning to the audience, urging them not to be too hasty in discounting the powers of vampirism, witchcraft, and other dark arts. The film then cuts to a funeral service, already in progress. The deceased, Elwyn Clayton (George Zucco), was a man none too loved by the folks in his town. You see, he took a trip to India and returned a Satanist, and you know, that just rubbed everyone the wrong way. He was subsequently killed by his twin brother, the well-respected Dr. Lloyd Clayton (also Zucco) who claims he acted in self-defense. During the funeral, Kate, the town crazy, barges in to denounce Elwyn’s funeral as blasphemous, warning those in attendance that his death will not be the end of his meddling in dark forces. Once the funeral is over, Lloyd returns to Elwyn’s home and begins collecting all of his books and papers and throwing them in the fire when he is suddenly interrupted by Elwyn’s faithful assistant Zolarr (Dwight Frye), who warns him that he will regret his actions. Zolarr then retreats to the cemetery where he removes Elwyn’s coffin from its crypt and transports it to a safe hiding spot because unbeknownst to everyone else, Elwyn made a pact with the devil wherein he appears dead during the day, but rises as a vampire at night.
So with the moon in the sky, Elwyn makes his dramatic return, eager to get his revenge. Instead of simply killing Lloyd outright, however, he begins murdering people around town, and framing Lloyd for the crimes. Of course, no one believes that it could be Elwyn risen from the grave. I mean, who would believe such nonsense? He also begins to prey on Gayle Clayton, Lloyd’s niece (Elwyn’s own daughter). Proving he’s truly gone off the deep end, he gradually drains her of blood while she sleeps, prolonging her inevitable demise, slowly twisting the knife while Lloyd frantically works with Gayle’s fiance, the handsome Dr. David Bently, to clear his own name and stop Elwyn’s reign of terror.
One day, Crazy Kate eventually locates Elwyn’s corpse, but unlike most vampire stories, the sunlight that shines across his body does nothing. Elwyn’s body is simply dead. Shortly after, Zolarr kills Kate offscreen. When her corpse is discovered, the frightened townspeople begin grabbing their torches and pitchforks and marching through the town, searching for Lloyd, who they believe is responsible for all of the deaths. With time running short, Lloyd manages to locate his brother and in this moment realizes he may have to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to kill Elwyn a second time and put an end to the killing spree once and for all.
Like many vampire films, Dead Men Walk owes a lot to Tod Browning’s Dracula. Sure, it’s not as beautiful to look at, it has no fancy sets, costumes, or effects, and it definitely feels like a movie that was quickly thrown together, but what’s great about this film is that what it lacks in budget, it makes up for in a rather fun narrative. The good/evil brother angle, for instance, is particularly interesting as it blends a little bit of Jekyll & Hyde in with the vampire stuff. George Zucco, known as George “One Take” Zucco from his time at Universal, is clearly at home in this film as the Brothers Clayton. While Lloyd is a fairly standard hero, Zucco’s performance as Elwyn is legitimately menacing.
If you want the sexiness of Lugosi’s Dracula, though, look elsewhere because sexy, Zucco ain’t. Mary Carlisle (Gayle) is a perfectly fine but standard “damsel in distress” and Nedrick Young (Dr. David Bently) is largely superfluous (both more or less there to deliver lines), but it should surprise no one that the real highlight of this film is Dwight Frye giving one of his final performances before his untimely death. Channeling past roles that he made famous (Renfield in Dracula, and Fritz in Frankenstein), Frye is 100% in his element here as Elwyn’s hunchbacked assistant, always playing to the cheap seats with his over-the-top performance, screaming “Master! Master!” It’s a shame he was never able to break free from these sorts of roles because it’s clear he was an incredible talent.
Dead Men Walk is a very clear attempt at a Dracula-lite and it may never be considered a classic, but it has all the necessary elements to succeed as a serviceable low-budget horror film, and is much better than its reputation as a piece of public domain Poverty Row schlock would suggest. You can find it on DVD in a number of horror collections, including Mill Creek Entertainment’s 50 Horror Classics box set.