Home
Movies
Webseries
Short Films
Interviews Contact Links Cheez Blog


Dead Men Walk
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DEAD MEN WALK (1943)

Starring: George Zucco, Mary Carlisle, Nedrick Young, Dwight Frye, Fern Emmett

Written By: Fred Myton Directed By: Sam Newfield

The Short Version

A potentially interesting but ultimately dull take on the old “vampire’s revenge” story.

Along with the “evil twin brother” story, come to think of it.

One of Dwight Frye’s final films.

Frye aside, the movie lacks the passion one expects from a vampire flick.

Dead Men Walk is still worthwhile for the vampire enthusiast as an oft-missed piece of history; just don’t expect any excitement.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

COLBY.

Completely inoffensive cheese that’s just kind of there.


Pairs Well With...

HOUSE WHISKEY.

Hmm… this stuff is rather weak.  Better make it a double.

“You burned the book that would have given you the information you wanted.”


On the one hand, it’s somewhat sad to see Dead Men Walk take its place amongst those films that time seems to have forgotten.  It’s an interesting merger of the Dracula story (the direct lift elements are obvious) and the theme of the “evil twin brother,” with that little touch of Satan thrown in for good measure.

On the other hand, with the exception of Dwight Frye (Dracula), the cast puts in largely unimaginative and in some cases flat out bad performances, the direction is uninspired, and the wonderful potential of the premise ends up being wasted.  Given how sadly the people who made Dead Men Walk seem to have treated their own film, it really should come as a surprise to no one that this movie has ended up largely forgotten.

It all starts out with so much promise, too.  The film opens with a close up of a book called “The History of Vampires,” which we then see tossed into a fireplace.  A man’s face is then superimposed over this image, and our dear talking head chides the audience for being too quick to discount the powers of vampirism, witchcraft, and the like.  (Fifteen years later, he probably would have been played by Criswell; here, he’s an uncredited Forrest Taylor.)  After this imposing introduction, the credits roll over the image of the book burning in the fire.  Creepy.

We then move on to a funeral service at a church.  It turns out that the service is for a certain Elwyn Clayton (George Zucco, The Mummy’s Tomb), who is survived by his identical twin brother, Dr. Lloyd Clayton (Zucco again, playing a dual role).  Elwyn was not at all loved within the community, and was indeed known to be a Satanist.  Lloyd, meanwhile, is looked upon as Elwyn’s polar opposite, considered by all to be a kind and generous pillar of the community. 

After the funeral, Lloyd visits his dead brother’s home, looks at the books upon the desk, and declares them to be “utter blasphemy.”  He then starts to toss them all into the fireplace.

Didn’t anyone ever tell this fool that burning books is always a bad idea?  Even if you don’t like them, you never know what might be in them that would be really useful to you later.

As Lloyd feeds the fire, Elwyn’s faithful servant, Zolarr (Dwight Frye) enters, and is appalled.  He promises Lloyd that he will regret destroying Elwyn’s books, and then dashes off.  As it turns out, he’s off to remove Elwyn’s coffin from its crypt, for as the moon rises, so does Zolarr’s old master, back from the dead.  It seems that in life, Elwyn made a pact with the Devil to come back from the grave as a vampire, and now that he has arisen, he feels that it’s time to take revenge on his dear despised brother…

Dead Men Walk really deserves better than it gets.

Even though it is in many respects a blatant Dracula rip-off with “what if Jekyll and Hyde were really just twin brothers” overtones, it’s still got an interesting premise, and the story has some real potential.  The pre-credit sequence shows that director’s got some good ideas in his head, too.  Unfortunately, one those opening credits are over, no one save for horror veteran and genre fan favorite Dwight Frye really seems to give a damn.  From start to finish, it’s all “point-and-shoot, read your lines, let’s move on to the next scene already.”  It seems unfortunately quite clear that the focus of almost everyone involved was neither art nor even professional pride, but rather, just cashing the check.

 This is epitomized by the performance of the film’s double-duty lead, George “One Take” Zucco, so nicknamed during his time at Universal.  I would not be surprised to discover that he lived up to the moniker here, as well, for every scene in the film feels like it was shot in one take, with no discussion before or after about what might be done to improve the scene; just read your lines and go.  That, indeed, is all that Zucco does: he reads his lines and then he goes.  The extent of the art that he brings to this film is to read the lines of the evil brother in a sinister voice and to read the lines of the good brother in a beatific one; beyond that, there’s just nothing at all compelling here.  When one turns out a boring performance as both the hero and the villain of a movie, how can there be any hope for the rest of the picture to stand?

Not that Zucco is the worst actor in the film, mind.  That goes to our secondary male lead, Nedrick Young (who’d later gain greater success as a writer, with credits including the screen story for Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock), who is not only incapable of changing the tone of his voice even when his character is supposed to be steaming mad, but also sounds like he’s reading straight off a cue card.  He may get a sympathy vote for being stuck in the twin thankless situations of playing the movie’s Jonathan Harker equivalent and of having to read the same “I don’t believe in vampires!” dialogue over and over again, but that sympathy only goes so far, and at the end of the day, there’s no excuse to phone it in, which Young frankly does here in major way.  Didn’t someone give this guy a screen test first?

One man who doesn’t need a screen test, though, is horror supporting cast fan favorite Dwight Frye, here playing one of his final roles.  (Frye would die just seven months after Dead Men Walk was released.)  Whether working for Count Dracula or Dr. Frankenstein, Frye made his name playing squirrelly henchmen at the service of evil – or at least twisted – characters, so that by the time he stepped onto the set of Dead Men Walk, all he would have needed to do was film the scene that finds him pinned under a podium screaming “Master! Master!” to steal the show.  Of course, Frye is there for more than just the one scene, and unlike the rest of the cast, he actually shows up.  Dwight Frye slips into the role of Zolarr like a comfy pair of slippers, and as always, he gives his all to his performance.  Surrounded by a cast that looks to be under heavy sedation by comparison, he does more than just steal the show; rather, he stands as the only tangible reason that anyone would still want to watch this movie after almost seventy years.

As for the intangibles, those are the fruits of trees called “potential” and “curiosity.”  Along with its melding of the Dracula-style story and the evil twin motif, Dead Men Walk also does some unorthodox things with vampire lore.  Though Elwyn claims to be able to create another vampire by the traditionally accepted means of turning one of his victims, Elwyn himself attains his state through a pact with the Devil fulfilled after his own natural (or perhaps unnatural, since Lloyd will eventually admit to having murdered his brother) death.  Along with this unusual genesis, Elwyn has unusual powers and an unusually specific single means by which he can be killed.  With regard to his powers, Elwyn does not metamorphose into animals or mists, but he can materialize and disappear from and back into thin air, just like a ghost.  (And though he boasts of having great strength, he is in fact seen being just the equal of a nearly sixty year old mortal man, though this is likely for the director’s convenience.)  And his death, we are told, can only be accomplished if his body is consumed by fire during the hours of daylight.  The daylight itself doesn’t do it (though he is completely helpless during the day and cannot move), nor will a stake.  It has to be fire, and nothing else.  It’s yet another take on the question of “what is a vampire?”, and for vampire enthusiasts, these twists alone will make Dead Men Walk worth watching.

For everyone else, though… it’s not bad enough to run away from if you find it while channel flipping or if it happens to come as part of a video collection you pick up, but it’s certainly not good enough to be called any kind of destination flick, either.  It could have been, but the filmmakers just don’t seem to have cared enough to make it so.

Bottom line, Dead Men Walk is worthwhile for the vampire enthusiast as an oft-missed piece of history, or for the classic horror fan who just can’t get enough of Dwight Frye, but generally speaking, it’s just too dull and by-the-numbers to be worth seeking out for the average moviegoer.  Whatever potential it had was squandered when the director decided to not give a damn and most of the cast agreed to go along with him, and the result is a film that might be worthy of the subtitle: “The Little Coffin That Could Have, But Didn’t Bother.”

Doom Cheez Cinema is now Cinema on the Rocks. Thank you for your support!

Tweet this page!






- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


hermajestyspod.com

- copyright 2000-2016, Ziggy Berkeley and Cinema on the Rocks, all rights reserved.

Promotional/still images copyright their original authors. If you're going to drink, please do so legally and responsibly. Thanks.