MGM had its musicals. RKO had a knack for film noir. The best gangster pictures came from Warner Bros. The really good series Westerns and serials were Republic’s. And from 1931 (with Dracula) through the Fifties, Universal absolutely owned the Horror Film (though toward the end, their output starting leaning more and more toward science fiction).
Universal (then Universal-International) was also putting out a steady stream of Westerns in the Fifties, ranging from medium-budget films — starring Joel McCrea, Audie Murphy, Rock Hudson, Jeff Chandler and others — to A pictures like Winchester 73 (1950), which now seems like a virtual blueprint for the Fifties Westerns that followed.
In 1959, U-I combined the two genres they excelled at to create the clever Curse Of The Undead. (Today, we’d probably call it a mash-up.)
The conventions of Westerns and horror pictures would have been well known around the Universal lot — hell, they invented most of the Horror ones. Here, writers Edward Dien (who also directed) and his wife Mildred bent the rules a bit. You’ve got the usual range war plot, with a typical gun for hire — only this time he’s Drake Robey (Michael Pate), a member of the undead. The idea that a vampire can’t take daylight is reworked to let our cowboy vampire ride the range. You can tell the Diens had fun turning clichés upside down.
A key scene in Curse Of The Undead, one that really illustrates the liberties taken with the genres’ conventions (without giving too much away), comes toward the end of the film. One of the ranchers, Buffer (Bruce Gordon), challenges the vampire, Robey, to a gunfight in the saloon. Both men draw and Buffer is hit — certain that he drew first and hit his opponent. He dies. Later, we see the hole in Robey’s vest — Buffer had indeed been quicker on the draw. (This idea of an undead gunfighter, who wins even if he’s outdrawn, could easily have been the basis of an entire film.)
Curse Of The Undead is a cheap little movie. Aside from a few quick shots done on a western street, it plays out on a few sparsely-propped sets. And it runs a short 79 minutes. All in keeping with other Universal Horror films of the late Fifties: The Mole People, Monster On Campus, The Leech Woman, etc.
Look it up about anywhere, and Curse Of The Undead is listed as the first “vampire western.” It’s genuinely eerie in spots, with a score that makes good use of the theremin. Michael Pate is excellent, and he’s joined by a capable cast: Eric Fleming (from TV’s Rawhide), Kathleen Crowley and John Hoyt. And it’s a helluva lot better than Billy The Kid Vs. Dracula (1966).
Note: Believe it or not, I came across that still of Michael Pate on an online obituary!