Long before AMC’s phenomenally successful television show, The Walking Dead, was on anyone’s radar, there was…The Walking Dead. Moreover, the original was also based around the recently deceased rising from the dead and wiping out the living, albeit in a somewhat distinctly different fashion.
The Walking Dead in question was a 1936 movie, shot in moody black and white and starring Boris Karloff – most famous for his portrayal of the patchwork living-corpse in Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein of 1931.
In The Walking Dead, Karloff’s character is one John Ellman. We are introduced to him just as he has been released from prison, after serving a lengthy sentence for killing a man. Unbeknownst to Ellman a group of hoods is looking to murder a certain Judge Roger Shaw, who they fear knows a great deal about their criminal activities.
But how can they kill the judge and also escape detection? Very easily: they learn that Judge Shaw was the very man that sentenced Ellman to his sentence. So, with Ellman newly released from prison, the gang sets out to frame Ellman, by making it look like he killed Shaw as revenge for his lengthy time spent in jail.
The ruse works all too well: one of the gang murders the judge, and Ellman quickly becomes the fall-guy and is arrested, tried and found guilty of the crime. The hoodlums have gotten away scot-free. Or so they assume they have gotten away.
As fate would have it, a young couple, Nancy and Jimmy, witness the murder and come forward when they realize that Ellman is about to be executed for a crime of which he was innocent. Unfortunately, their actions are too late to save Ellman. He is put to death in the electric-chair before Nancy and Jimmy can raise the alarm.
As luck would have it, however, Nancy and Jimmy work for a Dr. Evan Beaumont, a somewhat eccentric scientist obsessed by death, the afterlife, and the reanimation of human corpses.
When it quickly becomes clear to the authorities that Ellman was innocent of the death of Judge Shaw, Dr. Beaumont is given permission to try and bring Ellman back to life – which he succeeds in doing. Ellman is not the man he once was, however. He has no memory of his life prior to his execution, and he exists in a strange, almost zombified, state.
For reasons that are never made clear, however, Ellman has an eerie awareness of the gang responsible for his death. By night, he visits them, one by one, and, while staring malevolently in their direction, asks: “Why did you have me killed?”
Soon after the question is posed, the gang-members die in grisly accidents – and not unlike the scenarios played-out so successfully in the Final Destination movies. As Ellman closes in on the final, two hoods that were responsible for his death, one of them fatally shoots him in, rather appropriately, the confines of an old, creepy cemetery.
They escape from Ellman, but cannot avoid the Grim Reaper. The pair dies in a fiery car accident. Nancy and Jimmy do their best to keep Ellman alive, while Dr. Beaumont pleads with Ellman to tell him what he encountered during his brief time spent in the afterlife.
It’s to no avail, however. Ellman takes his last breath without revealing the secret of the world beyond this one.
The viewer is left with the impression that there are certain things about which we should not know until it’s our time, and turn, to find out personally.