“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 much 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 performances richly pleasurable.
Unlike many of Zucco’s films, Dead Men Walk gave him substantial material that 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.) Gee, 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 that 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. Because of course he’s played by Dwight Frye. Who else would you call when you need a toady to the undead?
After feasting on a young maiden, Elwyn drops by his brother’s office the evening after. It turns out—rather surprisingly—that the good doctor Lloyd actually 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, vowing 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 almost as much as prime Lugosi. As Frank Dello Stritto wrote, “If Lugosi’s vampire is something of a lounge lizard, Zucco’s is a dirty old man.” Indeed, he’s the unassuming retiree down the street who secretly wants to suck your blood. His aged, commonplace appearance renders his ugly, mirthless chuckle and his desire to corrupt and destroy young women all the more appalling. He glows with malice.
Rather like E.F. Benson’s chillingly ordinary vampire in “Mrs. Amworth,” Elwyn is a stealth threat. In fact, I wouldn’t be a bit shocked if the writer of Dead Men Walk was thinking of this particular image from “Mrs. Amworth” when dreaming up some scares: “I saw, with the indescribable horror of incipient nightmare, Mrs. Amworth’s face suspended close to the pane in the darkness outside, nodding and smiling at me…. [W]hichever window I opened Mrs. Amworth’s face would float in, like those noiseless black gnats that bit before one was aware.” Like the titular vampire in Benson’s tale, Elwyn is at his most creepy when hovering outside a victim’s window, bathed in moonlight.
So, who’s going to fight this menace? Surely we have some lovable Van Helsing figure, someone we can identify with and cheer on, right? Not exactly.
(Who knew Woodrow Wilson had an evil vampire twin? Which reminds me, does anyone want to greenlight my script for Woodrow Wilson: Vampire Hunter?)
While we expect the bad twin to be effectively spooky and awful, the “normal” twin in Dead Men Walk has a surprisingly grim side too. He murdered his brother, no matter how pure his motives might have been. The side of good isn’t so spotless as we might hope, raising questions about the corruption inherent even in fighting evil. The element of fratricide lends gravitas and ambiguity to this dark, dualistic tale of sibling rivalry, a muddied, supernatural Cain and Abel.
Is Dead Men Walk a great film? Well, no, it was made at PRC, and it’s not Detour. 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.
Mary Carlisle turns in a likable performance, adding suspense to the story as we see her life essence waning under the vampire’s influence. Alas, her love interest could barely choke out his lines. And Dwight Frye does not get enough to do at all. The visuals are appropriately shadowy—often to the point of 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 some of today’s movie stars out of their trailers, so let’s cut it some slack, okay?
If you love horror and derive comfort from snuggling up with a slightly creaky but very creepy 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.