Yes, it’s the famous “Humphrey Bogart as a zombie mad scientist” movie. The tale goes that Jack Warner inflicted this role on gangster-flick star Bogart as punishment for resisting being cast in too many formulaic crime films. This was, of course, before The Maltese Falcon made Bogie a big-time star and long before actors had the kind of contracts that they have these days.
Bogart plays the titular Dr X, but not the same Dr X that Lionel Atwill played in a movie of that name earlier in the decade. This Dr X is Dr Maurice Xavier, a mad scientist executed in the electric chair for, among other things, bizarre experiments on infants (a pretty ballsy story element in those pre- Auschwitz awareness days). The “return” mentioned in the title refers to the fact that Bogart’s Dr X has been brought back from the dead by the film’s secondary menace, Dr Flegg (and let’s face it , The Return Of Dr Flegg just doesn’t have the same sinister appeal).
Flegg can bring people back from the dead but needs Dr X’s help to perfect “synthetic blood” without which his ressurrectees die again after a period of days. That’s right, Flegg seems to think nobody will be interested in his method of restoring life to the recently deceased just because his subjects don’t live indefinitely! (Early heart transplant operations anyone?) The revived Bogart takes to surgically draining real blood from the hearts of unwilling victims to keep himself alive while he and Flegg work on their “new, improved” synthetic blood.
The whole film has the feel of one of Bela Lugosi’s laughable PRC horror flicks from back then complete with an annoying smart-alecky reporter, a supposedly handsome young doctor as our romantic lead (to give you an idea of this physician’s level of lameness, at one point he says “Interesting stuff, blood” and seems to mean every word of it) and a female partner for him who has the rare blood type Dr X needs from the victims he drains. Adding to the PRC feel is Huntz Hall from the Bowery Boys as a newspaper librarian and a blustering, impatient editor for our reporter. (Annoyed at the grisly details of the Dr X story the jolly journalist insists on covering the editor at one point calls the reporter, who hails from Kansas, “Wichita Frankenstein”. Now that’s a movie I’d pay to see!)
The whole picture is Bogie, though, in the role he loathed, sporting pale face makeup and a strange white streak in his hair that makes him look like the lead in a movie called Attack Of The Skunk Man, or maybe like Pepe le Peu in human form. We first see Bogart stroking a rabbit that he kills so Dr Flegg can bring it back to life later in the movie and we last see him when Dr X gets gunned down in a shootout with the cops during a scene that can’t help but remind you of Bogie’s early gangster-on-the- run movies. Since I’m kind of odd it also reminded me of the zombie-gangster movie from the 50′s titled Creature With The Atom Brain. For you Casablanca fans wouldn’t you love to see Bogart’s undead Dr X take on Conrad Veidt as the zombie Cesare from the 1919 film The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari?
****** If you want to complete the Hat Trick of unrelated Dr X movies there’s also The Revenge Of Dr X, from decades later, about a mad American scientist who travels to Japan. Once there he acquires a lab assistant whom the dialogue constantly refers to as ugly and hunchbacked even though he’s neither. This Dr X also creates a ridiculous-looking plant/man hybrid with huge Venus flytraps for hands and feet. (No, really.)
The real claim to fame of this final Dr X movie is the fact that it is supposedly based on a previously unproduced script by Ed Wood himself. I have no idea if that’s true but some of the dialogue is certainly inane enough to have been penned by Wood (“All our past mistakes are in the past now”). And, though the screenplay would have had nothing to do with it, the ending, where the monster falls into a volcano and dies, is cobbled together from incredibly mismatched footage that makes the end of Wood’s film Bride Of The Monster look positively coherent by comparison.
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