Contains mild spoilers.
The Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday, redubbed, rescored and tamed a little for the US) is a sumptuous visual treat and widely regarded as one of the finest cinematic gothic horror fairy-tales with directors Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Tim Burton all citing its influence. Despite being banned for eight years in the UK by an over-sensitive conservative reactionary committee for several dark and shocking scenes it's really the tangible and constant atmosphere of dread that flits seamlessly though and along all facets of the film that defines Mario Bava's full directorial debut. The Mask of Satan is a film at one with itself; flowing with grace and ease from one scene to the next, full of symbolism and subtlety yet telling a very real story with a firm unambiguous back story and climax.
The opening five minutes is evocative and provocative cinema at its finest; a bewitching and haunting sequence that demonstrates directorial confidence and skill. It's a dark brooding night and Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) and her lover Javutich (Arturo Dominici) are dragged up onto wooden posts to face the most severe of punishments by the inquisition for devil worshipping and witchcraft. Before the mask of Satan, a cruel iron-maiden-esque metal depiction of the devil punctuated with internal nails is hammered on to her face and she is burned alive she manages to scream out a curse on her brother, the head of the inquisition, and their family line declaring she will have her revenge though the bloodline. The thump of the hammer as the mask is driven into her head is sadistic, gratuitous and shocking. It's also one of the main reasons the film was banned, yet without it's inclusion the scene would lose the impact and focus it had and deprive of us of one of cinema's most iconic scenes.
200 years later and Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), travelling through Moldavia come across her burial tomb and you know how things are, one thing leads to another, the crucifix standing guard at the end of her resting place gets broken, her mask is removed and Dr. Kruvajan manages to snag his hand, dripping blood onto her surprisingly fresh looking face. I really don't want to spoil the plot, but I don't think I'll be giving too much away by saying that it looks like she might be getting that chance of revenge after all, especially with the nearby castle now being occupied with her brothers direct descendants, Prince Vajda (Garrani), his son Constantine (Enrico Oliveiri) and his daughter Katia (Steele again) who just happens to be the spitting image and exactly the same age as Asa, when she was killed.
An aversion to the cross, blood for rejuvenating, hypnotic suggestion of the weak, puncture marks on the neck, only coming out at night and resting in a sarcophagus during the day all point to vampires and this is certainly right. A. Boylan at Taliesin Meets the Vampires argues that Asa is a witch vampire in keeping with Romanian mythology, and the strigoï vii (a living witch type vampire) and strigoï mort (the undead variety, which the vii becomes after death). This witch/vampire cross over certainly fits with her psychic ability to drain Katia and the recommended method of dispatch which isn't by wooden stake through the heart, but by piercing the left (evil) eye.
So what does this have to do with zombies? Other than Asa, the undead whether summoned like Javutich to climb from his two hundred year old slumber in unconsecrated ground, or those more recently turned, act as mere puppets to her will. Though able to talk with occasional glimpses of the person they once were, they are stripped of their self and soul and unable to refuse her commands however unsavoury or malevolent. I'm not going to pretend The Mask of Satan is any way a traditional zombie film but those woken / reanimated / turned to protect and serve her are of definite genre interest and show many of signs of the genre-fusion we've seen before in an Eastern European mythology and folklore full of vampires, revenants and the draugr. One must also remember the year is 1960 and it would be many years before Romero would usher in the new wave. Zombies were still transitioning from the new world and magic to the west and scientific dogmatism; they were still synonymous with slave/servent and it wasn't yet established whether they even had to be physically dead. The undead vampire-esque slaves of Asa depicted here, are valid enough in this transitional period and we should always be mindful not to under estimate the vampire's part in the zombie story.
The Mask of Satan has little to fault. Steele shines amidst equally solemn and assured casting and acting performances, and the cohesive and satisfying narrative is accompanied by equally exquisite photographic direction and pacing that makes each scene a delight to flow along with. Bava has a real knack for allowing sequences to evolve with single long sumptuous sweeping shots that start on small details only to pan out without breaks or changing camera and the results are beautiful, stylish and utterly absorbing. The moody black and white palette compliments the gothic ambience and Roberto Nicolosi's musical score is an accomplished and understated accompaniment (there was a new more generic horror score by Les Baxter for the US release which I've not heard.) The Mask of Satan is a cinematic triumph full of flare and vision with plenty of zombie genre crossover to warrant it's inclusion. Magical, powerful, it's recommended, 9/10.