Dead Men Walk: Zucco x 2

Dead Men Walk directed by Sam NewfieldDead Men Walk directed by Sam Newfield

Dead Men Walk directed by Sam NewfieldAs I have written elsewhere, the history of the 1940s horror film can practically be summarized with two words: Universal and Lewton. But while Universal Studios was busily churning out its remarkable run of Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man and Invisible Man films during that decade, and producer Val Lewton over at RKO was turning out some of the most artfully done horror films of all time (such as Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie), some of the other, lesser studios in Hollywood were coming out with their own shuddery fare, as well. Case in point: PRC, short for Producers Releasing Corp., a so-called “Poverty Row” outfit that specialized in B films meant to appear as the lesser attraction of double features.  The studio came out with all manner of films during the ’40s — their most famous films perhaps being The Devil Bat, featuring Bela Lugosi, the truly one-of-a-kind film noir Detour, and The Brute Man, the final film featuring the acromegalic Rondo Hatton — and in February ’43 released the picture in question here, Dead Men Walk.

In this film, the great English actor George Zucco (who has been very accurately described by writer David Quinlan as “the Boris Karloff of the B feature”) plays two very different roles: mild-mannered Dr. Lloyd Clayton and his evil twin brother, Elwyn, a Satanist of sorts who has just died and whose funeral we witness in the film’s opening scene. Elwyn’s hunchbacked assistant, Zolarr (Dwight Frye, here in one of his last roles), accuses the good doctor of having murdered his master, but whether or not that deed was done in self-defense or not is something that the film does not divulge. As it turns out, however, you just cannot keep a good Satanist down, and before very long, Elwyn is seen arising from his coffin, having been somehow transformed into a vampire of sorts; a being who sleeps by day in his coffin and arises at night to feed on the blood of the living. And what a toothsome morsel he happens to set his fangs on: Dr. Lloyd’s pretty young niece, Gayle (played by Mary Carlisle, in her final film). Thus, it is up to the good doctor, as well as Gayle’s fiancé Dr. Bently (Nedrick Young, the future co-screenwriter of such films as Jailhouse Rock, The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind!), to figure out a way to stop the undead brother’s unholy depredations…

In truth, Dead Men Walk (something of a misnomer of a title, actually, as there is only one man in it who can be termed “the walking dead”) is nothing that we haven’t seen done infinitely better before, as well as after. The film sports production values very much in keeping with its Poverty Row provenance, and although Zucco is as dependable as ever in his double role, most of the other players deliver up fairly lackluster performances. Director Sam Newfield (who, the previous year, had helmed the Zucco film The Mad Monster) brings his film home in a fairly lackluster manner, while screenwriter Fred Myton (who had also been responsible for The Mad Monster) offers up some fairly conventional dialogue. The film also features some clumsy scene transitions and decidedly oddball musical cues, and in all strikes the viewer as a decidedly minor piffle.

Not helping matters is the fact that the film today seems to reside in the public domain, with many subpar prints floating about. The one that I recently experienced, courtesy of the usually dependable TCM, sported a corroded-looking image and some very lousy sound; fortunately, it is possible to also watch the film on YouTube, a site that offers any number of superior prints of the film, but none of which looks truly pristine. Still, there is some good news to be had here. Dead Men Walk, besides being a fine showcase for Zucco’s skills (he is very sympathetic as the kindly Dr. Lloyd and at times chilling as the evil undead brother … never more so than when he first appears in Lloyd’s study after his funeral), also features a few interesting camera setups and some interesting visuals courtesy of cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh, as well as giving us the opportunity to appreciate the, uh, unique thesping skills of Dwight Frye, here in another of his patented wacko roles. (Sadly, Frye would be gone the following year, the victim of a heart attack at the age of 44.)

The picture also provides the viewer with several well-done scenes, especially the one that takes place toward the finale, with the two brothers battling to the death in the flaming residence of Elwyn, while Zolarr, pinned beneath a piece of furniture, screeches “Help me, master!” I suppose that there are probably worse ways to kill an hour (the film runs to a streamlined 63 minutes … NOT the 67 claimed by Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide) than by sitting down with Dead Men Walk, but most viewers, I have a feeling, will be left vaguely dissatisfied. The film is best recommended for completists of 1940s horror fare only — even though the picture in question never rises to the task of engendering chills — or perhaps to those fans of George Zucco who just cannot see enough of him … if any such person exists out there. Others might be well warned away, as watching Dead Men Walk might very well result in “Live Man Sleeping”…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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4 comments

  1. Where would grade-B horror movies be without evil twins? And assistants who have spinal issues or strangely shaped shoulders?

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Well, if you’re born a hunchback and your name is Igor or Zolarr, your career path is pretty much set for you, isn’t it? :)

  2. At least, show-biz is the broadest avenue in your field of vision.

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