Saturday, 31 August 2013

Tombs of the Blind Dead - review

1971 (Spain/Portugal)

Contains spoilers.
Betty Turner (Lone Fleming) has had a bad week. Her best friend and old school roommate with benefits is murdered and mutilated, her new male friend without benefits gets his arm chopped off and dies in her arms, she's chased and harried for miles by an army of immortal medieval undead horse riding knights who want to drink her blood inadvertently bringing the whole zombie gang with her to the local town where they'll probably start their brutal slaughter and oppression of the whole planet, and if she does eventually get to return to her mannequin business, she'll find that burnt to the ground too. As I said, bad week; oh, and I didn't even mention she was raped.

Tombs of the Blind Dead or Revenge from Planet Ape, yeah seriously as distributors tried to spin it to a US audience that a) seemed to really like monkey apocalypses and b) they thought were really quite gullible, is a 1971 Spanish horror from esteemed director Amando de Ossorio and the first of four films all focused on the same blind dead knights, and it's rather good. Virginia (María Elena Arpón) bumps into her old roommate Betty, introducing her to her friend Roger Whelan (César Burner) who suggests they all take a trip out the city get some fine county air for a day or two. Things turn sour on the train ride though as Roger's amorous and reciprocated moves towards Betty unnerves and upsets Virginia. She concludes that as two's company and three's a crowd, the best thing to do, obviously, is throw herself from the moving train and to take up residence at the local ruined medieval town and graveyard of Berzano.

It might sound a bit ridiculous when put like this, but it never comes across as such. Victoria, like all the characters are successfully presented as complex multifaceted individuals with depth and back story, and her actions leading her to spend a night in the dilapidated spooky abandoned fort, whilst from the comfort of the sofa seem ill-advised, does manage to avoid appearing unduly convenient or contrived. It's this ability to present the far fetched and implausible as coherent and authentic that elevates Tombs of the Blind Dead above other low budget hammy horror films of the time. Yes, the pacing is slow, the dialogue thick and the makeup and effects a tad weak if we're honest, but the atmosphere is constantly brooding and the narrative always interesting.

Are they zombies though? De Ossorio didn't think so going so far as objecting to the use of the word. He saw them more like mummies with intelligent malevolence rather than shambling reanimates without reason or sense. I personally think there's enough room to manoeuvre; yes they're skeletal and yes I recently said reanimated skeletons like those in Jason and the Argonauts, didn't really count, but these guys aren't magical boney puppets controlled by the will of another, they're reanimated long dead corpses, reacting and moving independently. Heck it's dangerous ground I know; one could argue that zombies originated as the puppets of their voodoo master and I'll have to write some thoughts down on zombies and control at some point. Anyhoo...

There were these knights, you see, that six hundred odd years ago returned from the East with treasure, a new found interest in the occult and witchcraft and the whimsical notion that sacrificing virgins and drinking their blood could give them immortality. The powers that be didn't think much to any of this so they captured and executed them, leaving their bodies hanging from trees to dissuade others from thinking it was a good idea. The story goes that whilst dangling some crows took a particular interest in their eyes hence the idea of immortal blind dead knights and the tagline/original-quirk for the franchise. Unlike Romero and Fulci, de Ossorio provides a clear origin-story and ok it's far fetched and sacrificing virgins is by today's standards all a bit cliché and silly, but yet again it all manages to come across authentic and plausible. 

So are they zombies? Well they're definitely dead and reanimated and they still like the taste of fresh blood. Ok, they can ride horses, but they were trained riders and even Romero isn't against letting that bit of residual muscle memory remain as seen in Survival of the Dead. We also have undead Virginia to think of too, who's up and about because she's been bitten. I understand de Ossorio decided not to repeat this more western Romero style zombiefication of victims in later films but he did here and while there's certainly a bit of zompire ambiguity with her going for the neck and blood I do think it's all leaning quite hard towards the Z as she shuffles about arms out front.

Tombs of the Blind Dead is a brooding, moody intelligent horror full of 70's continental European flair, surrealism and eccentricity. Complex characters are allowed to take centre stage in an intelligent creepy and extremely atmospheric horror film that oozes macrabre style and atmosphere. It also contains several, even by today's standards, quite shocking and disturbing scenes without ever being overly exploitative. With constant great scene composition and the ambition to mix it all up with slow-mo de Ossorio has crafted a brilliant undead film that really stands the test of time. As if things can't get any better it's also all accompanied by a hauntingly good score. There really is very little to complain about and I'd recommend this without hesitation, 8/10.

I managed to get my grubby mitts on the Blue Underground coffin box collectors edition and the quality of the transfer is nigh on perfect and if anything might actually be slightly too good showing the low budget 70's effects and animatronics up somewhat. With both the original Spanish with excellent English subtitles and English Dub version on the disc this is the version to get.


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