Can we talk about something serious here for a moment? Can we talk about cult movies?
Somehow I’ve lived an entire life—almost two lives, if you’re Keats—and no one’s told me about Bowery at Midnight. It’s in the public domain, like all good things, and you can just watch it for free if you wish. It stars Bela Lugosi, and it’s totally gonzo. Everything I say after this paragraph is a huge spoiler, so you should stop reading and go watch it. (After you watch it, don’t come back here, because my plot summary would be redundant. I am writing specifically to make you kick yourself for reading these spoilers after ignoring my advice to stop reading and watch the movie.)
Ok, so Bela Lugosi. He plays an esteemed psychology professor named Brenner. But he lives a double-life, a life so shameful he hides it from everyone, even his beloved wife. At night, when he pretends he’s conducting scientific research, he is actually running a charitable soup kitchen on the Bowery under the name Wagner.
But secretly, Wagner’s identity as a philanthropist masks a double life. Because Wagner uses his soup kitchen to seek out professional criminals (you know, the kind of people who frequent the Bowery, am I right?) and he gets them to pull off heists he plans. Then he kills them off. Usually he just leaves the dead bodies at the scene of the crime as a red herring, but sometimes he has to kill them in his secret underground lair, which is accessed by a secret passage under a map of Australia in his secret aboveground office (which is, in turn, accessed by a secret panel from his exoteric office in the soup kitchen, of course); when that happens, he gives the bodies to a hophead doctor friend of his, a charity case that Wagner keeps around out of pity. The hophead doctor buries the bodies in a tidy little graveyard in the secret underground lair, complete with incriminating headstones. But what Wagner doesn’t know is that the hophead doctor has secretly been performing experiments on these dead bodies and turning them into zombies. Shuffling, brain-eating zombies. He keeps them in a secret subbasement he has surreptitiously excavated under the secret underground lair. It’s accessed by a secret door in a grave.
(I should mention that Wagner is insane and has wired the whole place with hidden cameras because he’s clinically paranoid. But the hophead somehow figures out how to avoid being detected. He’s just that good. Too bad about the addiction.)
The police, of course, are trying to find out who’s been pulling off all these crimes and leaving stiffs behind. Wagner has them baffled, and then he goes from his heist to his lovely home in the burbs, and (as Prof. Brenner) gives his wife fancy jewels; then he teaches a class in psychology.
There are lots of plot twists, which is impressive for a 61 minute movie. But the key one I’m going to spoil is when romantic lead (male) stumbles upon the professor’s double life. Will he extract romantic lead (female) from the deadly predicament she’s in? Will he expose Wagner/Brenner? No; instead romantic lead (male) gets killed, and a hophead doctor makes him into a zombie. Furthermore, as the cops close in on the sinister doctor, after he has killed everyone he loves, Wagner/Brenner tries to hide in the secret subbasement under the grave—and of course is immediately eaten by zombies, one of whom is romantic lead (male). A fitting end for his kind!
Then the romance needs to be wrapped up, so we see romantic lead (male) recuperating in bed, and romantic lead (female) mentions that she’s going to marry him as soon as he gets better, and goes in for a kiss…and there’s no twist, no sudden sting from the soundtrack, so sinister zoom to make you afraid. But the thing is, we know, as the audience, and romantic lead (female) does not know, that her fiance is a zombie who literally ate someone one scene earlier. He’s keeping it from her! He’s totally going to eat her sooner or later and the movie doesn’t even stop to acknowledge it or wink at us. It’s just something that happens offscreen after the credits run.
Really a lot of people die at surprising times in the movie, and the zombies when they show up are quite a surprise too. I’m sorry I ruined it for you, and I’m sorry I had no analysis for you, just plot, like a junior high book report, but this really is a wonderful movie and that is all I have to say about that.