Creature of the Walking Dead/La Marca del Muerto (1960/1964) -**
Several times now, I’ve praised K. Gordon Murray by contrasting him with Jerry Warren, another recidivist distributor of South-of-the-Border horror movies. Thus far, however, we’ve dealt directly with Warren only in the context of a film that was purely his own, The Incredible Petrified World. That will never do, for as lousy as that flick was, it really does not adequately demonstrate the main reason why the name Jerry Warren is so apt to provoke agonized groaning and gnashing of teeth from experienced B-movie fans. To grasp that fully, it is necessary to take in an import like Creature of the Walking Dead, Warren’s tragic hatchet-job on the otherwise lost Mexican horror film, La Marca del Muerto (Mark of the Dead).
It is very instructive to watch Creature of the Walking Dead with the sound turned off, fast-forwarding though any scene that appears to have been shot inside a rancher in Southern California. Doing so gives by far the best impression of the movie Mark of the Dead was supposed to have been, an atmospheric (albeit somewhat muddle-headed) riff on H. P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in which the novella’s black magic angle is jettisoned in favor of pure mad science. So far as I can determine on the basis of what Warren has left us, the story would have gone something like this…
In the mid-19th century, in what I take to be Mexico City, physician and medical researcher John Malthus (Fernando Casanova, later of Santo vs. the King of Crime and Santo and the Diabolical Brain) spends most of his nights locked away in his mansion’s secret laboratory, searching for the key to immortality. (As Braineater’s Will Laughlin has pointed out, “Malthus” is a hilariously inappropriate name for a character in this line of work— one might just as well have a Gilded Age robber baron called Marx!) Given that this is a cheap-ass horror movie, the key to immortality naturally involves draining the blood of attractive, young girls, which Malthus acquires by ambushing them in the plaza that stretches out from the city’s cathedral. The authorities have taken notice of the doctor’s activities, however, and tonight’s victim will be Malthus’s last. No sooner has he rigged up his transfusion equipment to transfer the latest girl’s processed blood to his own veins than he hears an insistent knock at his front door. When he goes to see what the hubbub is about, a group of policemen storm in and haul him away, ultimately to the gallows.
100 years go by, and Malthus’s grandson, Martin (also Fernando Casanova), either buys or inherits his ancestor’s house. While exploring his new home, Martin discovers the hidden door leading to the network of tunnels in which Granddad built his laboratory. The mummified body of Malthus the elder’s final victim is still there (suggesting that follow-through was not exactly the forte of those police we saw arresting the doctor earlier), as are the notebooks in which he recorded his experiments. Then Malthus the younger finds something else which apparently eluded the previous century’s policemen, the extra-secret chamber behind the lab, in which his grandfather kept his victims locked up while they were awaiting exsanguination. (There are three more mummies in this second room. If you’re asking me, the probably inadvertent implication that these women were allowed to starve to death in their cells because the dimwits who arrested Malthus never realized they were there is far and away the most horrifying thing in this movie.) Martin takes a seat, begins reading the notebooks through, and starts getting some decidedly naughty ideas.
A bit later, Martin takes it upon himself to see just how effective his grandfather’s immortality potion really was. He sneaks into the cemetery where his ancestors were buried, and liberates the old doctor’s corpse from its tomb in the family mausoleum. Then he kidnaps a girl (I think this is Aurora Alvarado, from The Curse of Nostradamus and The Monster Demolisher— I’ll explain why I’m not exactly sure later on) and drains some— but significantly not all— of her blood to refill his grandfather’s veins. John Malthus lives again, restored to the age at which he died, but with the ligature mark from the noose branded indelibly across his throat. (I’m assuming this is that Mark of the Dead referenced by the original title.) Perhaps surprisingly, however, John is not very impressed with Martin. Sure, he found the lab, figured out how to use the equipment, and made the leap to attempting an immortality experiment of his own, but his reluctance to kill his captive both creates a dangerous loose end and marks Martin as a great, big weenie so far as his grandfather is concerned.
Meanwhile, Martin’s fiancee, Beth (Sonia Furió, from Madness of Terror and Dr. Satan vs. Black Magic), is getting worried about him. Evidently his work with his undead grandfather has taken him out of circulation sufficiently for Beth to start wondering uneasily about what he’s been up to. Furthermore, a colleague of Martin’s (The Hell of Frankenstein’s Pedro de Aguillón) has observed him behaving strangely at the hospital where they both work, and he comes to Beth to share his concerns. Specifically, the other doctor believes that Malthus may be stealing both blood and exotic drugs from the hospital’s supply room. And in point of fact, that’s exactly what Martin has been doing. His grandfather never quite perfected his immortality serum, and so it is necessary that he periodically rejuvenate himself with additional transfusions. The elder Malthus continues to experiment with blood taken from that girl Martin kidnapped, but he is becoming increasingly exasperated over the quality of the refresher plasma that Martin brings him. Both Malthuses know perfectly well that best results require absolutely fresh blood, and John is all out of patience with Martin’s refusal to harm anyone in order to obtain it. The breaking point comes when Martin is late bringing home the groceries, allowing his grandfather’s aging to resume. John locks Martin in one of the holding cells, then goes out on the town to collect a new blood donor (probably Rosa Maria Gallardo, of The Brainiac). Interestingly, this scene plays out as an exact duplicate of the earlier stalking vignette. Of course, it would have been more interesting still if director Fernando Cortes had done more to play up the changes that have come over the city in the past hundred years.
With Martin locked away and John’s aging once again arrested, the elder Malthus has the brilliant idea to begin impersonating his grandson, allowing him greater freedom of action. He also comes to believe that the secret to perfecting his immortality lies in combining blood from several donors of different serotypes, and subjecting the resulting mixture to the electrochemical treatment he has been using from the start. Malthus reckons that a total of four donors will be required. Fortuitously enough, he already has three people locked up in his holding cells, and now that he’s going around passing himself off as Martin, he’ll have ready access to a fourth in the form of Beth.
Like I said, it’s a bit muddled, but it has its strong points. Like so many Mexican horror films of its era, Mark of the Dead took premises and ideas that had already seen much use north of the Rio Grande, and bent them into interesting new shapes. Yeah, there are a few serious problems; there’s that business about the mummies in the lab, to start with, and (although it’s possible this is actually Jerry Warren’s fault) it also really does look as though the maze of obviously subterranean tunnels leading to the laboratory is supposed to be hidden somehow on one of the upper floors of the Malthus mansion. Also, you don’t have to be very good at math to observe that there really needs to be another generation interposed between John and Martin Malthus if the century that separates their lifetimes is to be reconciled with the realities of human biology. Still, the people who made Mark of the Dead were obviously trying, and it looks like they probably succeeded more often than not. Furthermore, the cinematography is lovely, and Fernando Cortes displays a good deal more visual imagination than the average American filmmaker in his price range.
But then Jerry Warren got his hands on the movie, and Jerry was not trying— or if he was, he was doing it from such a hopelessly cockeyed angle that it becomes difficult to imagine what success on his terms might even have meant. Not content to do the simple, obvious thing, and dub Mark of the Dead with English-language dialogue, Warren chopped up the film, reordered the segments to at least some extent, undoubtedly excised a certain amount of footage altogether, and then inserted new scenes shot with a cast and crew of his own. In other words, the Warren method was much like what was so often done with Japanese imports at the time, but with a couple of major, telling differences.
First, even the most inept importers of Japanese movies (think Universal’s rendition of King Kong vs. Godzilla) made some recognizable effort at coherence with their interpolations, seeking to make the new footage seem to interact with the old where that was possible, and building in excuses for avoiding such interaction where it wasn’t. But let’s have a look at what Warren added in transforming Mark of the Dead into Creature of the Walking Dead. First, he gives us a scene in which a supposedly 19th-century police inspector (Bruno VeSota, whom Warren used to similar effect in The Curse of the Stone Hand and Attack of the Mayan Mummy) discusses the recently resolved Malthus case with one of his subordinates (Robert Christopher, of I Dismember Mama and Frankenstein Island) while the two of them are getting a massage in what almost has to be Jerry Warren’s real-world office. Leave aside for now the impossibility of imposing any intelligible meaning on the men’s conversation— this scene makes no sense at all even in its basic premise! Nor is any purpose served by a subsequent succession of babbling-cops sequences, in which a modern-day detective (Man Beast’s Rock Madison) attempts to solve the new Malthus crimes with the help of a psychic (Katherine Victor, from The Wild World of Batwoman and The Cape Canaveral Monsters) who claims to have seen one of the abductions in a vision. This plot thread of Warren’s actually manages to make a mess out of what should have been a fairly straightforward part of the main action, in that it is next to impossible to get a fix on which of the two abductees Victor’s character is talking about. What’s more, Victor consistently refers to the captive in question as “Frieda,” which is the name of Beth’s family’s maid in the original Mexican footage— a character who never sets foot in the Malthus mansion at all! That, in turn, complicates the issue of figuring out which actress plays which victim, for the credits are vague enough to start with, and the character names can no longer be confidently squared up between the Mexican version of the film and the American. And worst of all, because Mark of the Dead already had a perfectly serviceable climax (which Warren has uncharacteristically allowed to stand unmolested), this confusing, irritating business with the cop and the psychic never produces even the faintest whiff of payoff. The detective just mills around for a while, accomplishing jack shit and wasting the audience’s time, and then it’s back to Martin Malthus and the imprisoned women, who effect their own rescue quite well enough without the aid of any policemen who would not be filmed for another four years, anyway.
Next, let us note that Warren’s inserted scenes are more than simply meandering, shitty, and incomprehensible. Even if we accept the dubious proposition that a movie needs a cast of white faces in order to succeed in American release, the actors in Mark of the Dead were already white people!!!! Hell, a few of them were even blondes! So whereas the addition of Raymond Burr to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, of Brian Donlevy to Gammera the Invincible, or of John Carradine to Half-Human can at least sort of be defended as a strategy for circumventing audience prejudice, the equivalent insertions in Creature of the Walking Dead are as purposeless, economically speaking, as they are from a dramatic or narrative perspective. K. Gordon Murray certainly never had any trouble selling a dubbed Mexican B-picture to American exhibitors without splicing in a bunch of lame new footage of ninth-rate Hollywood “talent” jabbering endlessly at each other in his rec-room.
Now it would have been plenty bad enough had Warren been content simply to replace some of Fernando Cortes’s footage with such unintelligible, unproductive garbage, but it is in Warren’s treatment of what he kept from the Mexican cut that we truly see the full magnitude of his anti-genius at work. Creature of the Walking Dead features astonishingly little conventional dubbing, apparently because Warren didn’t feel like hiring more than one voice-actor of each gender to undertake the task. Both of the Doctors Malthus are dubbed normally in many of the scenes that have them hanging around the lab, and most of the female characters get a line or two here and there (obviously courtesy of the same actress, whose various vocal affectations are somewhat lacking in persuasiveness). But most of the time, we’re left to make do instead with Martin Malthus expostulating in voiceover, whether he’s present in the scene or not. The most jaw-dropping moment in the whole film comes when Martin and Beth have their first confrontation; rather than hearing the conversation between them, as we would in any remotely sane movie, we watch the scene play out in pantomime while Martin’s voiceover summarizes the original Spanish-language dialogue! The narration continues into the next scene, too, presenting us with the even more amazing spectacle of Martin giving us the gist of a meeting between Beth and another character, which he plainly was not around to witness, and which he shouldn’t even have heard about after the fact! It makes my brain numb just to remember it. If Fernando Cortes ever met Warren face to face, I hope he gave him a good, hard kick in the shins.