Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)
I’ve seen one or two of Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series in the past, via some edited, dubbed, non-letterboxed, crappy EP-speed VHS tapes. Now, thanks to the good folks at Anchor Bay, I was able to rent the first of the four films, Tombs of the Blind Dead. Released as part of a five disc set, contained in a box shaped like a coffin, the DVD presents the film in all its widescreen glory, uncut and in its original language. And so now I feel fully qualified to say….they made four of these?
OK, maybe it’s not that surprising. I mean, I think there have been six or seven Leprechaun movies by now. And compared to any of those, La Noche Del Terror Ciego is a veritable classic. And it must be said that the Blind Dead themselves are pretty eerie and more than capable of inspiring a certain frisson. How unfortunate, then, that the overall film is so bleeding lethargic.
We open* with a white haired woman screaming in terror, and then quickly cut to a luxury seaside hotel in Lisbon. There, former boarding school chums Beth and Virginia meet by chance out by the swimming pool. (Which…just coincidentally, I’m sure…allows for our heroines to first be seen in some skimpy bikinis.) Virginia seems happy enough with the reunion initially—she, in fact, spots Beth first and calls to her—but quickly exhibits a more reticent expression when Virginia makes reference to their past together.[*I’m reviewing the longer, original Spanish language cut of the movie, and thus relying on the DVD’s English subtitles. The disc also features the shorter, somewhat re-shuffled American cut of the movie. In most cases my preferences lean towards the original cuts of films. However, I will say that the fifteen minutes clipped from the Spanish cut definitely keeps the American version from dragging as much. Nonetheless, the English subtitles reveal that the American cut alters and simplifies a lot of the original movie’s character subtleties, such as they were.]
They quickly catch up. From what I can figure, Beth hails from Lisbon, while Virginia has just moved there recently and opened a business, which is making fashion mannequins. “Are you familiar with the Montreal warehouse in the outskirts?” she asks. “Next to the morgue?” Beth shudders. I have to admit, although European cities tend to be more intimate than American ones, I found it amusing that one would not only be expected to be acquainted with a specific warehouse on the edge of town, but would in fact be able to correlate its proximity to the town morgue.
Things aren’t helped when Beth introduces her boyfriend, rugged interior designer Roger. (His extremely ‘70s robe, sporting a huge collar and giant blue polka dots, remains easily the most horrifying thing in the movie.) Despite the fact that she had referred to their relationship as being “not serious”—a view he clearly shares—Beth becomes visibly jealous when he immediately evinces a strong attraction towards Virginia. He thus importunes Beth to join them on their planned camping trip to the country. Virginia tries to nix this idea, but Roger is adamant, and Beth ends up agreeing.
They meet up at the train station. Once aboard, Roger continues to flirt with Beth, causing an increasingly irate Virginia to stalk to the end of the car. Beth joins her, and we get a pretty sedate flashback, by today’s standards, anyway, revealing what has become obvious, that in school Beth kind of took sexual advantage of the younger, obviously naÃ”ve Virginia. (A comical note is struck by the flashback, however, by dint of the woefully unconvincing attempts to make the actresses look like younger versions of themselves.) Beth, we infer, has moved to Lisbon partly in the hopes of hooking back up with Virginia, but it’s clear the latter does not look back on things as fondly.
Beth returns to the car, and the agitated Virginia grabs her sleeping bag and jumps off the slow-moving train. The young conductor sees this and pleads with his engineer father to stop. The latter mutters darkly that she doesn’t know what she is getting into and continues on.
Virginia heads towards the nearby village of Berzano, but it proves to be long deserted. Long story short, she eventually beds down for the night. Eventually a ghostly church bell is heard, and perhaps a dozen of the titular Blind Dead rise from the village graveyard. They are Crusader-robed, skeletal figures who shuffle along in traditional zombie fashion. In this case, though, it is because they lack eyes. Which, you know, you may have figured out from the title.
They do, however, have horses. (??) These are in shrouds, and I don’t know if they are supposed to be zombie horses. My guess is yes, but that they couldn’t remotely pull off the special effects for something like that. In any case, after spending a good amount of time slooowly backing away from her undead pursuers, and running away only to pause and wait whenever she gets too far ahead of them, Virginia manages to jump atop one of their horses and ride away on it. (!!!!) However, the Dead follow along after her, and she eventually falls to their swords.
At this point the film takes a long and very weird diversion. Virginia’s mutilated body is taken to the Lisbon morgue for an autopsy. There Beth and Roger identify the body, to the grins of a very weird attendant who exhibits broad delight at the horror of his visitors. They leave, and for no apparent reason whatsoever, Virginia’s body, complete with autopsy scars, reanimates and kills the attendant. Here we do get a very nice and typically European visual, as the attendant’s pet frog is seen jumping around a pool of his owner’s blood.
As Beth and Roger continue to investigate Virginia’s death, their living dead friend is stalking Beth’s assistant at the manikin warehouse. (In a nice touch, the woman looks vaguely like Virginia. Although there’s nothing overt to suggest such a thing, we have to wonder if she and Beth are lovers.)
Living Dead Virginia lurks among the hanging manikins, because that’s all spooky and such. Meanwhile, a previously, if lamely, established neon sign bathes the storeroom with an intermittent red glow. Eventually, following a typically dragged out suspense sequence, the woman manages to set LD Virginia ablaze. Shockingly, the reanimated Virginia shrieks in agony as she’s consumed, which is sort of weird for a zombie. Assuming that’s what she was.
For their part, Roger and Beth find the Obligatory Academic who fills them in on the legend of the Blind Dead. They are the corpses of the storied Templar Knights, who returned from the Crusades with forbidden knowledge. Abandoning the Catholic Church (presumably this struck the film’s native Spanish audience as a bigger deal), they performed black magic rites, involving the slaughter of virgins—I must say, for the Middle Ages, the ‘virgin’ we see is surprisingly clean, fit and voluptuous (and, frankly, for the time period a little old)—and the subsequent drinking of their blood. In this they sought immortality, but eventually the Church caught up with them. The knights were hanged, and birds pecked out their eyes.
In an amazing coincidence, the detectives investigating Virginia’s murder show up and lay the crime at the feet of the Professor’s son Pedro, who just happens to be a small time smuggler whose gang lives in the area where she was killed. Their idea is that Albert is trying to use the legends of the Templar Knights to scare away visitors, a theory the detectives presumably formulated after watching an episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You?
In the end, Beth, Roger, Pedro (who suffers from instant and copious sweat stains whenever he dons a shirt) and his slutty moll investigate the village, with predictable results. This payoff sequence isn’t bad, although it still involves a lot of characters very slowly backing away from the Blind Dead instead of just beating feet. The (comparatively) famous climax is surprisingly apocalyptic. And if the special effects used to realize the carnage are not going to cause Tom Savini to lose any sleep, like many European films things are a bit more hardhearted than they might have been in an American movie.
The Blind Dead, who though sightless can track their victims with an exaggerated sense of hearing, are admittedly a compelling and original creation. However, the series has a well remarked upon tendency towards lassitude. I’m not exactly someone who demands constant jolts from my horror movies, and in fact my tastes run towards mood and sustained suspense rather than bloodshed. Still, there’s a difference between establishing a spooky ambiance and just dragging things out, and that difference is well illustrated here. And from what I’m told, the pace doesn’t pick up any in the subsequent chapters.
The most evident indication of the film’s narrative lumpiness is its entire middle section, which features the weirdly unconnected and utterly unmotivated storyline involving Virginia becoming a murderous zombie. None of the other victims of the Dead come back to life in such a fashion, and the whole thing smacks of a desperate attempt to pad out the running time between the two major appearances of the Blind Dead. Indeed, after the attack on Virginia, the Dead are offscreen for over 40 minutes, although their final rampage is nice and long.
The mixing of sex with violence, while hardly a fault on this movie alone, is nonetheless a bit off putting. The ‘young’ Beth molests a marginally complacent Virginia in a scene that would probably seem more like borderline date rape were she a man, and Beth herself is later raped by Pedro, an act which is inevitably used as an excuse to expose the actress’ boobs for our edification.
In the end, the film is well made, with decent production values, and is certainly watchable if you can get past its essential languor. Still, it seems a lot longer than its near hour and forty minutes, and if the American version is simplified and pares down the gore and sexuality (the lesbian flashback is cut so short that it might have been actively confusing to the picture’s drive-in patrons), at least it hacks out a good fifteen minutes of pointless wandering around.
The disc features some slight but enjoyable extras, which can be accessed from the American version menu. (In a not especially ergonomic move, once you choose either the American or Spanish cut, you can’t get to the other version’s menu without restarting the DVD entirely.) The most hilarious of these is a short spoken prologue that attempts to link the movie with the then popular Planet of the Ape series. If this is a parody, it’s a brilliant one, because as insane as it is, it really isn’t much weirder than the ridiculous tagged-on prologue that turned a dubbed Paul Naschy werewolf movie into, as it was known here, Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror.
A title card reads “A cut version of Tombs of the Blind Dead was released in the U.S. under the title Revenge From Planet Ape in an effort to capitalize on the on the success of Planet of the Apes. The following prologue was added to make a dubious connection between the two films. It’s an excellent example of the lengths fly-by-night drive-in distributors would go to in order to exploit the film.”
Then we get the revised opening, which includes some ludicrous narration over the opening credit footage. This asserts that “almost three thousands years ago,” Man battled a society of “super-intelligent apes” for mastery of the Earth. Mankind won, and tortured the last remaining super-apes to death, by “piercing their eyes with a red hot poker.” In response, the leader of the apes vowed to return from the dead and wreak their revenge on mankind, “before Man destroyed Earth himself.” One can only assume that this outrageous idea was inspired by the fact that the sunken, noseless but bearded faces of the Blind Dead look very slightly simian in nature.
Again, this might be a bit of mischief on the part of the DVD makers, but if so, it’s a perfect piece of satire, in that it’s on the one hand utterly insane, and on the other quite believable.
Aside from the American trailer, we also get a gallary of fun print material, including promotional stills, posters and lobby cards from several countries and American newspaper ads. It’s quite humorous to see ads for Tombs of the Blind Dead alongside ones for such films as Billy Jack, The Sound of Music and the musical 1776. Notably, Tombs of the Blind Dead was apparently often double billed with the much harder Twitch of the Death Nerve, a Mario Bava movie that prefigured the slasher films of the ‘80s.
Also worth a look are the advertising flyers scream that the movie “MAKES NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD LOOK LIKE A KIDS’ PAJAMA PARTY!” and “MAKES MARK OF THE DEVIL [a quite gruesome film] LOOK LIKE A FAIRY TALE!” Hilariously, some of these flyers at the same time note not only the cut American version’s PG rating, but the line, “CHILDREN ADMITTED $1.00 ALL TIMES”! Even so, we also get to see the promotional customized ‘stomach distress bags’ that were handed out in an attempt to persuade potential viewers that the bowdlerized was hot stuff. Featuring advertising art from the movie, this warns “This VOMIT BAG and the PRICE of one ADMISSION will enable YOU to SEE…TOMB [sic!] OF THE BLIND DEAD MOST HORRIFYING FILM EVER MADE”. (Ellipsis in the original.) The American materials, by the way, name the film simply The Blind Dead.