The Walking Dead at the Allenby Cinema

With Halloween but a day away, here’s a photo of the Allenby Theatre’s lobby in 1936, showing Boris Karloff in The Walking Dead, with Gorilla Man, Snooper Service and Night Watchman as b-pictures.

The gimmick on the poster (“Blow on this spot — If it turns GREEN, you are too weak to…”) is typical of that era, and was probably tongue-in-cheekly enforced by a tuxedo-wearing cinema manager.

By the time The Walking Dead reached the east-end cinema in July of 1936, it had already played several Toronto theatres, including the Aster, the Kenwood and the Madison (now the Bloor), where it premiered on June 8. It enjoyed quite the run, because it was still playing in other neighbourhood theatres in September.

Karloff, who originated the role of Frankenstein’s Monster at Universal, was a busy actor in the 1930s, and when The Walking Dead played the Madison, several of his other films, like The Invisible Ray with (with fellow horror icon Bela Lugosi), The Black Room, and The Raven flickered around Toronto.

The film — chilling, yet laden with a few bizarre Christian undertones — features one of my favourite Karloff performances. The following was adapted from the Cinemarquee column I regularly write for Rue Morgue Magazine:

Warner Brothers. films of the 1930s were known for their stark realism, glamourizing the anti-hero and the downtrodden. The studio dominated the gangster genre, and even its musicals, while still full of glitz and glamour, featured Depression-era chorus girls waiting for their big break. Throughout that decade Warner also released a number of horror films. Michael Curtiz, one of the company’s most prolific directors — responsible for The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, and on the horror side, The Mystery of the Wax Museum and Dr. X – did something different in 1936 when he merged gangsters with the supernatural in The Walking Dead.

In the film, Karloff plays John Ellman, newly freed from prison for a murder he didn’t commit. When we first see the character, he’s wearing a run-down flat-brimmed fedora and appears utterly lost in his overcoat. When he’s turned down for a job, the tone of his voice mixes desperation with pride as he announces he is a pianist – “and a good one, at that!”

Ellman’s luck only gets worse, though. When a mobster is convicted of murder, his boss, Nolan (Ricardo Cortez), seeks revenge on the judge. The gangsters frame Ellman, since the same judge had sent him away ten years earlier. When the judge’s body is found in Ellman’s car, he’s arrested and sentenced to death. Maintaining his innocence until the very end, his final words, “He’ll believe me,” are the first in a series of religious references heard throughout the film.

After the execution, a trio of scientists – two of whom witnessed the set-up – acquire Ellman’s body and revive him. Stripped of his personality, but now sporting a stylish white streak in his hair, he lumbers around Beaumont’s home like a lobotomy victim.

The similarities to James Whale’s Frankenstein are obvious. When Ellman is revived, Beaumont whispers “He’s alive!” Later on, Karloff walks in as the doctor’s assistant plays the piano. He hunches towards her, not unlike the way the Monster approached Mae Clarke in Whale’s 1931 film. But that’s where the similarities end. In Frankenstein, Henry is persecuted for toying with nature; here, there is no such moralistic undertone. In fact, Beaumont is lauded internationally and Ellman becomes a minor celebrity.

Ellman wasn’t privy to the set-up before his execution but learns of his fate through some divine intervention after sitting at the piano to play the song overheard at his execution. The doctors, now realizing he was framed, invite the hoodlums over for a recital. In a sequence that is half King Kong, half Tell-Tale Heart, Ellman’s eyes well up as he plays, his icy stare bringing a cold sweat to the brow of each guilty party. Converging outside, the bad guys decide to kill him again.

It’s never clear whether or not Ellman wants revenge for the wrongdoing, but he seeks out the mobsters, waxing poetically, “You can’t use that gun. You can’t escape what you’ve done.” Ellman’s constant presence as a victim may have avoided complications from the censors at the Production Code, and it works wonderfully, keeping him free of sin in a film laden with Christian overtones.

While famous for his horror roles, Karloff was no stranger to gangster pictures, having played a heavy in Scarface and The Criminal Code, among others. Here, unencumbered by the makeup he wore in Universal’s monster films, the actor’s pleading expressions take viewers on an emotional roller coaster ride. Curtiz capitalized on this with bold close-ups of Karloff’s gaunt appearance.

As a result, not only did the film-maker get one of Karloff’s most tragic and under-rated performances, he got one shocking enough to scare the Y-E-L-L out of Allenby patrons.

Photo: City of Toronto Archives

* Classic horror fans may notice that the Toronto Star‘s advertisement (to the right) bizzarely shows Henry Hull from Universal’s Werewolf of London instead of Karloff.

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