Free Friday Film: Dead Men Walk (1943)

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“You creatures of the light, how can you say with absolute certainty what does or does not dwell in the limitless ocean of the night? Are the dark and shrouded legions of evil not but figments of the imagination because you and your puny conceit say that they cannot exist?”

Prologue, Dead Men Walk

The name George Zucco stokes the deepest reserves of my film geek love. This classically trained Englishman—with his cultured, grave baritone speaking voice and his startling black eyes, indecently bulging forward at will—is a veritable institution in horror. Despite a distinguished stage career and several notable supporting roles in big Hollywood productions, Zucco found most of his work among B-movie chillers from Universal and cheap Poverty Row shockers. No matter how tawdry the material or how small the part, his effulgent glee in playing mad scientists, wicked priests, and all-round nasty rotters makes his horror performances very pleasurable.

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Unlike many of Zucco’s films, Dead Men Walk gave him some hammy material he could really sink his teeth into: a double role as an upstanding community doctor and his degenerate, occult-obsessed twin brother. The story starts with the funeral of Elwyn Clayton, as his brother Lloyd stands over the coffin. (Note to self: never name my child Elwyn.) Hm. Lloyd doesn’t look too broken up. Suddenly, the town crazy lady bursts into the chapel and announces that the dead man doesn’t deserve a Christian burial—he was an unnatural sinner. You know, I get the feeling something’s not right here…

Sure enough, later that night, vampire Elwyn has risen from his tomb, abetted by his servant, Zolarr, played by Dwight Frye, the ultimate toady to the undead.

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After feasting on a lovely young maiden the first night, he drops by his brother’s office the evening after. It turns out that—rather surprisingly—the good doctor Lloyd killed his blasphemous brother, or tried to, not knowing that his twin had attained immortal life as a vampire. Gloating over his power, Elwyn throws down the gauntlet of a horrible retribution:

“You’ll know that I am no intangible figment of your imagination when you feel the weight of my hatred. Your life will be a torment. I’ll strip you of everything you hold dear before I drag you down to a sordid death. You’ll pray you’re dead long before you die.”

Yeah, and you thought your sibling was a troublemaker! In all sincerity, Zucco’s bald-ish, chortling vampire scares me a lot more than Lugosi ever could. Elwyn is the nice old man down the street… who secretly wants to drink your blood. His aged, ordinary appearance renders his ugly, mirthless chuckle and his desire to corrupt and destroy young women all the more appalling. He fairly glows with malice.

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(Who knew Woodrow Wilson had an evil twin? Which reminds me, anyone want to greenlight my script for Woodrow Wilson: Vampire Hunter?)

However, as much as I find the evil twin effectively spooky, I’m also quite interested in the fact that the good twin still murdered his brother, no matter how pure his motives might have been. The theme of fratricide lends a touch more gravitas to this dark tale of sibling rivalry, like a muddied, supernatural Cain and Abel.

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Is Dead Men Walk a great film? Well, duh, it was made at PRC and it’s not Detour. So, no, it’s not. Directed by Sam Neufield, who’s probably best known for the dorky-as-hell I Accuse My Parents, this movie wasn’t worthy of its acting talent. The pacing definitely lags, and I’m phrasing that kindly.

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Mary Carlisle, one of the few living members of the Hollywood old guard, turns in a decent performance, but her love interest could barely choke out his lines. And Dwight Frye does not get enough to do at all. I personally found the settings to be appropriately shadowy and creepy—often blacking out parts of faces to suggest the depravity of the villains. Not everyone agrees with me, unfortunately, and some of the reviews elsewhere are just plain cruel. This movie was probably shot in less time than it takes to coax most of today’s movie stars out of their trailers.

If you love horror and derive comfort from snuggling up with a slightly creaky 1940s horror flick, you can watch this one for free. And if you don’t love that, I will totally haunt you after I’m gone.

This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie! 

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