The second episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker breaks away from the template established by the two made-for-TV movies that the show was based upon. And it’s educational as well!
No exotic dancers, massage-parlor employees, or anybody else dressed like Barbara Eden get murdered this time; it’s a clash between Italian mobsters and a black numbers-running syndicate that drives the plot of this episode. All the victims are men.
This story was co-written by David Chase, who would go on later in his career to write a great deal more about mobsters, but sadly very little about the living dead coming back to take revenge on those who killed them.
The episode begins with Carl Kolchak’s pithy voiceover narration introducing us to a trio of low-level mooks counting up the receipts from their small-change racket in the otherwise empty back section of a parked semi-truck. Their work is interrupted when someone starts banging on the barred truck doors–the cops, they think as they scramble to destroy incriminating evidence, but the unseen person who bursts in on them proves more dangerous. After firing some ineffective shots, two of the men jump out of the trunk and escape. The third man, named Willie Pike, gets tossed around like a rag doll and ends up dead.
Carl Kolchak is writing an article about the death of Willie Pike, describing it as the usual gangland slaying, nothing remarkable, when his editor Tony Vincenzo takes him aside. There’s going to be a police raid on a farm outside Chicago, where brother gangsters James and Perry Russo are holed up. Tony wants Carl to cover it.
Tony also asks Carl to take along a new, young employee: Monique Marmelstein, who is a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism as well as the boss’s niece. She can’t pronounce “nepotism,” but she insists that that isn’t the reason she got a job at INS. Tony says that he thinks Monique could be a good journalist with a little experience, and that she and Carl have a lot in common. They do, but not in ways that Carl likes.
Carl does his best to ditch Monique during this episode, and eventually puts her in a taxi back to Brooklyn, but she has my sympathy. Especially when Police Captain Winwood, who is charge of the raid at the farm, calls her “that stupid female” after she darts out to try and get photos when the shooting starts–which is something Kolchak does all the damn time. As a matter of fact, he does it right after he gets her out of the way. To be fair, though, Winwood doesn’t like Kolchak either.
After the police shoot a barrage of bullets into the barn, things suddenly get very quiet. They decide that the Russos must be dead and venture inside the barn to check. Carl and the other news reporters on the scene gather around, eager to get some pictures of the bullet-ridden bodies, but Winwood won’t let them even have a peek.
Carl, fortunately, is on friendly terms with the coroner, Gordy the Ghoul (John Fiedler) and contributes generously to Gordy’s own raffle involving the birth dates of the various corpses currently at the morgue. Gordy can’t give Carl information about James and Perry Russo, but shows him an X-ray of Willie Pike’s broken spine–the official story was that Willie died of “severe blows”–and hints that the Russo brothers died in the same way, not by a hail of police bullets.
Gordy also tells Carl that another body was discovered in the barn with the Russos, an unidentified black man who’s been dead for some days.
“We had him in here last week,” says Gordy as he shows Carl the body on its slab. The same man was brought into the morgue then as a murder victim, shot by six .44 Magnum bullets, which are not a caliber the police use, so it was probably a mob hit.
But why would the Russo brothers have the week-dead body in the barn with them? And why would the mystery body have chicken blood in his ears?
This is all strange and intriguing, but Carl’s curiosity about the dead black man is fully roused when he attends the body’s burial at St. Lucie’s cemetery and hears from the curmudgeonly caretaker that this is the second body to be placed in the same plot. Well, that isn’t quite correct; it’s the same body being reburied in that plot. Captain Winwood also attends this second funeral, and warns Carl off when he tries to ask questions about the dead man.
Eventually, the dead black man is identified as a numbers runner from Haiti named Francois Edmonds.
To get more information, Carl goes around Chicago seeking bookies ostensibly to place a bet but actually to ask questions about the late Francois Edmonds. His nosing around draws the attention of the black syndicate leader, who goes by the nickname of Sweetstick (Antonio Fargas, who would later be Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch).
Sweetstick is already familiar with Carl Kolchak’s work as a reporter; he recalls that Carl once called him “the Duke of the Southside numbers fiefdom and all-around civic headache.” Carl says that that was his brother, Marshall Kolchak, but Sweetstick isn’t buying it. He tells Carl to knock off asking questions about Francois Edmonds before he gets knocked off himself.
Another Italian mobster gets his spine snapped like a twig. He was one of the two who escaped from the attack at the beginning of the show, but this man also was the mob boss’s brother in law, so he’s higher up the food chain and his death warrants more attention.
Since the one survivor can describe the person who killed Willie Pike as a black man, the Italian mobsters assume it was one of Sweetstick’s men and he must also be responsible for the spine-snapping of the Russos and this latest murder. The mob boss, Mr. Sposato, arranges a meeting in a parking garage that’s “closed for repairs”.
Carl, undaunted by a death threat or two, sneaks into the garage and listens in hiding with his pocket tape-recorder running.
I don’t know how much Sweetstick knows about Francois Edmonds apart from the fact that he was murdered and that the Italian mobsters were behind it, but he isn’t inclined to be cooperative when Sposato demands “reparations” for the deaths of his sister’s husband and his other men in the form of a whopping percentage of the syndicate’s action. I doubt he’d agree even if the mob boss didn’t constantly throw racial insults into their supposed negotiations. The epithets only lead Sweetstick and his own men to abandon the meeting, get into their car, and drive off.
After they’re gone, Carl tries to shut off his tape-recorder and accidentally hits the rewind button instead. The sound gives his hiding place away and before he can get away, he’s hauled up to have a little conversation with the Sposato and his lieutenant, a guy named Victor. Like Sweetstick, they’re already familiar with Kolchak’s intrusive work as a reporter; Sposato remembers Carl being a nuisance at his daughter’s wedding, and doesn’t buy it when Carl tries to tell him that that was his brother, Sidney Kolchak. It doesn’t help that Carl can’t get the mob boss’s name right and calls him “Mr. Episato” or “Mr. Spinoza.”
Carl next tries to talk his way out of a grisly death by offering up the name of the person responsible for the murders of Sposato’s men: Francois Edmonds.
The mobsters scoff. The name of Francois Edmonds is known to them, and they know he’s buried in St. Lucie’s cemetery.
Carl replies: “That’s where they keep putting him, but I’ll bet my life–and I’m not saying that loosely, gentlemen! I’ll bet my life that he’s not there now.”
The mobsters take Carl to the cemetery and force him and the elderly caretaker to start digging up the recently reburied Edmonds. When they open the coffin and find it empty except for a slaughtered black cockerel and a scattering of corn kernels, Sposato and Victor begin to believe Carl’s story. Growing frightened, they try to shove responsibility for authorizing the hit on Francois Edmonds by the Russo brothers, at Willie Pike’s request, off onto each other. Like Francois is going care.
He doesn’t. And he’s headed back toward his grave right now.
When they hear the approach of the shambling undead numbers runner, the mobsters start to shoot, but to no avail. Victor gets to be the next victim at the hands of Zombie Francois while his boss makes a quick get-away. Carl, huddling in the open grave, hears the man’s spine snap. He’ll enthusiastically describe it to Tony a little while later when his editor comes to get him at the police station after he’s discovered on the site of a fresh murder. “I heard it crunch, and the man who did it has been dead more than two weeks!”
This is where Carl introduces the theory that Francois is an old-fashioned zombie–not the kind that eats brains, but basically a corpse reanimated to do some kind of mindless physical work. In this case, revenge killings. But Carl doesn’t know who brought Francois back and who is controlling his actions.
Subsequent research soon reveals that Francois’s only next-of-kin in the Chicago area is his grandmother, Marie Juliette Edmonds. Carl pays her a visit at her home.
Kolchak is Educational: The new vocabulary word I learned from this episode was “Mama-lois,” which is the term for a voodoo priestess. As it happens, Francois’s grandmother is a Mama-lois and she’s understandably upset about the murder of her bebe.
Grandma Edmonds seems like a darling little old lady, but don’t cross her! If you question her about her grandson not staying buried, she’ll laugh and say you watch too many movies… and then she’ll go into the backyard, kill a black chicken and use its blood to paint your name on a little box that represents a coffin. She then throws some bits of corn at the box and says your name, and voila!–you’re now on Francois’s list of people to have their backs snapped.
More Kolchak is Educational: Back when I was writing a Dark Shadows review about zombies at Collinwood, I said that I’d learned how to deal with old-fashioned, mindless, not-brain-eating zombies from Carl Kolchak. Carl provides this useful information to Captain Winwood, since the police captain is already on Francois’s list ahead of Kolchak; it’s never made clear if Winwood was actively involved in Francois’s murder, or was bribed by Sposato to turn a blind eye to it.
Even if you aren’t on a zombie’s to-kill list, you may be glad to have this information too one day. Just in case.
To send a zombie to its eternal rest, you need a canister of salt, white candles and matches, and a sewing kit. Once you find the zombie while it lies dormant in a place of the dead, you fill its mouth with the salt, then sew its lips tightly shut. Then you light the candles around it.
A little later on, Carl will demonstrate precisely how to do this.
After Francois finally catches up with Sposato and finishes him off, he returns to his new resting place, which is not in St. Lucie’s cemetery. Kolchak, and Monique, arrive just a little too late to see or prevent this final spine-snapping, but Carl tracks Francois. He just misses the cross-town bus that Francois gets on, but jumps onto the back bumper and holds on tight.
Amusingly, nobody on the bus takes notice of the zombie sitting near the back. I’m wondering where Francois got the change to pay his bus fare.
He gets off at a scrapyard, and Carl follows him through the torn fence and searches a number of trashed cars until he spots the “place of the dead”–a wrecked hearse. Sure enough, Francois is napping inside.
Since he has his Zombie Kit handy with him, Carl then embarks on the grisly task I most admire him for. Sewing a corpse’s lips shut is pretty nasty work, and working on the living dead requires a lot of courage. His hand shakes as he tips the container of salt into the zombie’s mouth, and he looks sweaty and a little sick as he threads a sturdy circular needle.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Grandma Edmonds decides that it’s time to go after Kolchak and starts flinging corn at his little coffin. “More Kolchak! More!” (Or maybe she’s saying morte, the French word for dead.)
Just as Carl starts sewing, Francois opens his eyes. He sits up.
Carl scrambles out of the hearse inches ahead of the increasingly decomposed undead man. A frantic chase through the junkyard ensues, until Francois manages to get caught on a large hook and is hoisted away over Carl’s head. Bullets can’t kill a zombie, but it looks like strangling will at least hold him off for awhile. Carl lights the white candles on a hubcap and places them under the swinging body.
Summing things up at the end, Kolchak tells us that Francois Edmonds was reburied a third time with rock salt in his mouth and that, although Captain Winwood was never arrested for whatever part he had in the murder, he did resign soon afterwards. Monique is supposedly on her way to Brooklyn, but she’ll be back again.
Yeah, that’s a pretty good episode, one of the best of the entire short-lived show.