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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) review


Lone Fleming (Betty), Cesar Burner (Roger), Maria Elena (Virginia), Jose Thelman (Pedro), Veronica Llimera (Nina), Simon Arriaga (morgue attendant), Maria (Maria Silva)

Directed by Amando de Ossorio 

The Short Version: The Blind Dead ride in their inaugural slaughter sojourn--a classic of not only Spanish horror but of all horror cinema. Amando de Ossorio's decayed, horse-riding zombies hack, slash and drink the blood of their victims without the aid of sight, but by sound. An unnerving, tension-filled ghost story with just the right amount of goosebump-inducing atmosphere and shocks. No matter how silent, no matter how still you are, they will find you! In the annals of horror history, the Blind Dead ride with the best genre offerings.

Meeting up with a childhood friend for a weekend getaway, Virginia leaps from the train she and her friends are traveling on after Betty, her long-time friend, appears to show interest in Roger, the man accompanying her. The train conductor refuses to stop due to superstitious legends of a satanic cult permeating the countryside. Virginia stumbles upon the ruins of a monastery and decides to stay till morning. As night falls, zombiefied, skeletal creatures rise from their moldy tombs, climb atop their decomposed steeds and chase down the beautiful Virginia....

Discovering Virginia dead under mysterious circumstances, her body drained of blood, Betty and Roger uncover a terrible local legend of the Templar knights. Crusaders of Christ, the Templar's were ex-communicated for blasphemy, and hanged till the crows ate out their eyes. Centuries later they rise from their graves, awakened by the haunting boom of a ghostly bell to seek the blood of new victims.

Amando de Ossorio's first entry in his popular quartet was a big international hit during its theatrical release. At the time in Spain horror was said to have been frowned upon and seldom attempted mainly because of strict censorship laws. The one man who got the Spanish horror boom moving was Paul Naschy and his Uni-horror homages. These films, amazingly, were not as popular in their homeland, but more so in neighboring countries. In Spain and in America TOMBS is a cult film with a healthy following.

Ossorio's presentation was a bit different from Naschy's approach. Instead of using popular horror icons born from folklore and the minds of novelists, he chose the historical Templar Knights of the 12th-14th centuries. Feared by the King who believed their growing popularity would bring about dissent among the common people, the Templar's were inevitably hunted down and executed as heretics.

Ossorio created his own mythology, and even altered it with each of the succeeding three entries. For his celluloid version of the Templar's, traditional vampire lore mixes with Romero's then new approach towards zombies as seen in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). Ossorio's zombies kill with swords and drink the blood seeping from the gaping wounds. They do indulge in eating of the flesh in the other sequels, though.

Ossorio writes his script like a three arc story. The first section is the introduction of the Templar's and the palpable, superstitious air you can feel in nearly every frame. LA NOCHE DEL TERROR CIEGO is unique among vintage terror cinema in that it is genuinely scary years after it was made. The lengthy sequence near the beginning where Virginia decides to stay the night on the grounds of the dilapidated monastery marvelously builds the tension till the Blind Dead's arrival. An unblemished kick-off to one of the great classics of horror.

The second portion is where we learn the origin of the sightless zombies and, most importantly, witness the slashed and chewed corpse of Virginia return from the dead, dining on the jugular of a morgue attendant; and an intense stalk and chase by Virginia attempting to lay claim to the sangria of a female worker in a mannequin shop. It's one of the best scenes in the movie with the perfect pitch of lighting and music to ramp up the horror. It is in this section that most identifies the monsters with vampires. In none of the other entries does a victim return to life to drink the blood of another. 

Of particular interest during this portion of the film is the demise of the vampirized Virginia. Earlier in the movie there's a scene where she's undressing by a fire she builds inside one the ruins. The camera is behind the fire and as she undresses, the flames heighten, her body barely concealed by the licking flames. Later during the mannequin shop attack, Virginia, now a member of the living dead, is accidentally set on fire. The flames devour her slinky frame much like they did in the earlier, symbolic shot.

The third and final arc is where our protagonists go to the monastery to learn whether there's truth to the legend or not. It's here where the director has written the classic horror blueprint that would follow years later in all your finer slasher pictures; people doing dumb things, people standing around far too long (frozen with fear!), or women getting their foot caught or falling to the ground giving the slow-moving creatures time to catch up to them. It's also an early example of the 'final girl', which would be popularized in the 1980s slasher boom. And now for the unholy monsters of the film's title....

Among the most memorable, and original creations in all of fantastic cinema, the Blind Dead Templars find their prey through sound alone; even a beating heart can guide them to a potential victim's location. Adorned in centuries old cloaks and hoods, their bony hands reach out with swords drawn to slash, stab and skewer their targets before sucking the blood from the bodies. They ride long-dead, decomposing horses in haunting slow-motion. The skeletal crusaders even have small tufts of hair dangling from their bony chins.

Anton Garcia Abril's frightfully fabulous score is arguably the life's blood of Ossorio's world of zombie horror. Desperately in need of a CD release, it's up there with the likes of Carpenter's iconic score for HALLOWEEN (1978) and Manfredini's signature cues for FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).

Rape is a recurring theme in Ossorio's Blind Dead foursome (there's an attempted one in the second film, one in the third, and none in the fourth). It's most applicable in the first picture in how it fits into the narrative even if it comes off as gratuitous. 

In TOMBS, Ossorio writes in a lesbian sub-plot where we learn that Betty and Virginia had experimented when they were younger back in school. Actually, Betty had seduced her. Whenever Betty brings this up, Virginia seems to change her facial expression. When Betty tags along with her and Roger, Betty flirts with him to the point Virginia becomes noticeably jealous and leaps off the train to her doomed date with the Templar's.

During the conclusion, Betty and Roger enlist the aid of Pedro and his lover Maria, two small time hoods to accompany them to the monastery since nobody else was willing to foolishly throw their life away. Pedro is basically an animal; and after Betty states she's never been able to enjoy the touch of a man, Pedro takes it upon himself to reinforce Betty's stance by raping her. Afterward, thinking he's done a good thing, Pedro has the temerity to offer her a cigarette!

Much like the slashers of the next decade, there's virtually no plot in TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD. It's purely a well-told ghost story attached to the three aforementioned set-pieces. The reasons to watch are for the imagery, the atmosphere, the music and the Templar's themselves. Ossorio manages a remarkable creature feature with so little money.

The film's US release suffered a lot of cuts as well as the awkward shuffling around of some of its scenes. Trimmed down from 97 minutes to under 80 minutes, the VHS release fared no better. The movie was a mainstay on the syndicated ELVIRA'S MOVIE MACABRE during the 1980s. Strangely, those airings featured bloody violence during the train massacre that was missing on Paragon's videotape release.

Amando's three follow-ups all brought something new to the table, but none match the vigorous amount of fear he amasses in his classic original. The first sequel, RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD (1973), is the most successful at replicating the success of the first picture, but going in a radically different direction at the same time. The third film, THE GHOST GALLEON (1974), placed the Templar's aboard a fog-enshrouded ghost ship. Saddled with the absolute worst special effects, it's the least appealing of the four films. The fourth from Ossorio, NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS (1975), marks the return of the Templar's to an ocean setting in a Lovecraftian tale of sacrificing virgins inhabiting a superstitious seaside village.

The Templar's would return in at least two other movies by different directors. One of these was from British filmmaker, John Gilling, director of Hammer's THE REPTILE, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (both 1966) and THE MUMMY'S SHROUD (1967). Gilling's Templarian tale was titled CROSS OF THE DEVIL (1975). Written by Paul Naschy (!), the picture was plagued with problems and remains rarely seen today.

The Templar's rose one last time in Jess Franco's lousy porno horror, MANSION OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985), based on his own novel. Unfortunately, it is fairly easy to see nowadays via a DVD release from Severin.

In the early 70s, Amando de Ossorio created a unique monster in the form of the sightless, rotted Knights Templar. These skeletal blood-drinkers will forever be remembered as one of the most original and frightening of Europe's distinguished heritage of cinematic horror.

This review is representative of Blue Underground's Coffin Box Set. Specs and Extras: anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1; uncut Spanish with English subs and cut English dubbed version; theatrical trailer; poster and stills gallery; alternate opening credits sequence as REVENGE OF THE PLANET APE.


TheReverendDoom said...

Another one of my favorites. The relatively recent boxset is a must own. Solid stuff.
It is an interesting movie if you consider the politcal makeup of Spain at the time. The country was still under the control of Francisco Franco the fascist dictator who came to power in 1939 after leading a bloody coup/civil war for three years. Now the Templars may represent the rotten and blind powers of old Spain. The corrupt Church officials who oppressed everyone and anyone. With them rising up again it could be seen that is the people of today who should remain vigilant if they want to safe guard their liberties. Just my two cents...

venoms5 said...

An interesting observation, Reverend. Paul Naschy speaks at length in his biography about the censorship problems filmmakers faced in Spain at the time. Ossorio as well as spoken of it in interviews.

However, in films like this, I try not to (or never do!) find any social or political connotations in escapist entertainment such as these.

TheReverendDoom said...

Oh I never looked for it just noticed several years later as I have been very into the history of Spain. Fascinating stuff in that country.
I love Naschy's work as well.

venoms5 said...

There's three Naschy films reviewed here, Reverend. Have you seen those? They can be seen by clicking the 'Paul Naschy' label, or by the films title.

I have a few more from Naschy coming soon. I'm not the biggest fan of his films, but there's definitely a lot of atmosphere in them, despite being low on plot or logic.

Jay Shatzer said...

Absolutely love this boxset, but I'm surprised to hear about the train massacre being cut from the US set. I had no idea a scene like that even existed and it sounds pretty damn cool. I've never seen this full version and now I'm dying to check it out. I wonder if it's up on Youtube or something, cause I'd love to get a chance to view it. Another great review. I'm really digging your site.

venoms5 said...

Hey, Jay, thanks for the kind words. The train massacre is on the box set. It's cut from the previous VHS releases. The BU set is the one to get.

Jay Shatzer said...

Excellent! I'll have to give it another watch, because for some reason I don't remember ever seeing that ending. Oh well it was a while ago, so maybe I just forgot. Thanks for getting me in the mood to check it out again.

venoms5 said...

I just checked, Jay. It has both versions on the DVD. The English dubbed version runs 83 minutes and the Spanish with English subbed edition runs 97 minutes.

Jay Shatzer said...

Thanks. That's nuts! I must have watched the English dubbed one which is not what I usually prefer. I always like to watch films in their native language so I'm definitely going to have to re-watch that one in Spanish. Thanks again. Looking forward to seeing this ending.

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