August 5, 2010

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)

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Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)

(aka La noche del terror ciego)

Director: Amando de Ossorio

2.5 / 5 zedheads

Widely held as a classic of Spanish horror, Tombs of the Blind Dead certainly came into the post-Night of the Living Dead era with a unique concept. Even after watching the uncut Spanish version, however, I felt surprisingly unmoved by this tale of blind terror set in the Spanish countryside.

Although they've been dead since the Middle Ages, a group of evil Knights still plague the Spanish countryside around the ruins of a stone monastery . In life, the Knights were obsessed with achieving immortality through the black arts. From their medieval campaigns in the Far East, they brought back occult artifacts and practices of witchcraft which entailed methods of torture and blood-drinking to cheat death. After becoming universally feared and hated, they were convicted of their blasphemy and publicly hanged. In death, hungry birds pecked out their eyes as they hung from the gallows. Yet, the Knights' withered, blind, and mummified corpses still rise from the grave to hunt and feed on sacrificial blood in service to the dark powers that animate them.

Q: What do the Blind Dead call for instead of brains?
A: Canes! Canes!

Although the area around the monastery is shunned, a young woman named Virgina (María Elena Arpón) encounters the Blind Dead first hand when she abandons her friends on a train trip and camps out in the ruins. When she turns up dead and mutilated, her friends Betty (Lone Fleming) and Ralph (César Burner) enlist the aid of a smuggler (José Thelman) and his lover (Verónica Llimera) to spend the night in the ruins and find out what really happened to Virgina.

As characters, the Knights are simply iconic. Shrouded in dusty hoods, their dessicated faces are emotionless, but there's menace in their eyeless, skeletal stares. They move slowly and deliberately, appearing out of the ruins' many tunnels and shadowed passages. They either encircle their victims slowly or hunt them across the open fields, galloping on their shrouded horses (just don't ask where medieval corpses get and keep fresh horses). Except for their arms and hands which are feeble-looking skeletal appendages puppeted with little dexterity, the Knights are an amazing design. Consider that this film was released in 1971; the Knights stand out as an early example of accomplished full-body creature effects. Scenes in which the Knights hunt by sound are instantly memorable, such as when they home in on the beating of their victim's terrified heart.

The film as a whole, however, is slow and painfully prolonged in its attempts to hit every hallmark of sleazy exploitation. Exploitative lesbian love triangle? Check! Macho men who constantly grab women by the arm? Check! Senseless rape scene? Check! Scenes of sexualized torture inflicted on young women? Check! Rarely does the film achieve any dread or anything close to interesting characters, meaning that the overall exploitation of the material is left apparent and crass. I may have been more forgiving of the exploitation were these elements done well. The gore scenes in particular are quite poor. There's very little blood and the practical effects are noticeably crude. In 1968, Night of the Living Dead had more convincing gore.

The Blind Dead are silent, but the fashion is loud.
Amando de Ossorio doesn't seem able to frame his shots or block the action to achieve any sense of mood or tension. Everything is very literal and centered on screen. When the Blind Dead aren't on screen or en masse, the film is painfully limp. Even the scenes of the Blind Dead rising from the grave are dread-less. The sound design, however, goes to great lengths to unnerve the audience with a theme of disquieting chants that haunts the air whenever the Knights appear, but it can't compete with the film's overall lack of energy or style.

Save for the final shocking scenes which take place aboard a passenger train, Tombs of the Dead is a fairly hollow movie. The film did, on the other hand, introduce us to the Blind Dead in some very memorable scenes, so it's a mandatory watch for any zombie fan or Spanish horror buff. Most modern horror fans, I suspect, will likely scoff at the film's dated effects and laborious plot progression.

But are they zombies?

Technically, the Knights are not zombies. They are revenants -- animated corpses that return from the grave to terrorize the living. They are organized, coordinated, and make decisions They are neither mindless nor under the direct control of another force. The Knights do, on the other hand, feast on people and create a zombie of their own. From this zombie by-product, we are treated to some mildly interesting scenes in the classic zombie tradition. Arms out. Legs stiff. Shamble and stalk! Compared to their zombie creation, the Blind Dead are far more interesting and impressive.

1 in every 10 zombies prefers the taste of neck over brains.