Thursday, April 14, 2016

Tombs of the Blind Dead

It was on April 10, 1972 that one of my absolute favorite “zombie” films hit the theaters in Spain. I’ll explain the quote marks in a bit. It wasn’t even a full four years after the release of Night of the Living Dead in America when La noche del terror ciego created its own wonderfully terrifying addition to the horror genre and, eventually, to the zombie genre. We would eventually know them as “Blind Dead” in the annals of horror history, but they went through a number of name changes over the years- not all of them for the most honest of reasons.

That’s actually one of the things I love about Tombs of the Blind Dead. Not only is it an extremely effective horror film in its own right, but it’s a film where you can point to more than a few of the underhanded gimmicks fly by night distributors and theaters used to use to pull one over on unsuspecting movie goers. Mind you, I only love that aspect of it because I was young enough back in the day that they never had the opportunity to pull those tricks on me

Writer and Director Amando de Ossorio delivered a beautifully filmed entry into 1970’s low-budget horror. Ossorio was not only a solid director, but he was also a fairly gifted artist. This gave him a strong understanding of the power of the visual and of how to arrange all of the varied elements when composing that visual. It was primarily his ability to command and create powerful images that elevates the film’s fairly basic story above what it might otherwise have been in lesser skilled hands. 

The Film 

The film’s story is fairly basic and straightforward. Centuries ago a fictionalized version of the Templar Knights went rogue and turned to dark rituals with the goal of living forever. A large part of these rituals included human sacrifice and the drinking of still warm human blood. The knights were put down and executed, and their bodies were left out where the crows pecked out their eyes.

Over the centuries their stronghold has become an abandoned, crumbling structure sitting in the heart of an area the locals all seem to view as a taboo stretch of land. While the evil was once put down, the local legends make it clear that it came back in a more terrifying way. So, of course, we get some foolish friends to kick things off.

Our trio go for a train ride in the country where rushed relationship issues- and a past relationship by the ladies only shown in the full flashback found on the Spanish cut -causes tension between the couple/not couple. That bit also depends on the cut your watching. For no reason other than moving the plot along, one of our ladies hops off the train in the middle of the scenic Spanish countryside- right on the Blind Dead’s front door. She hikes her way up to the ruins of their old fortress and, after a little sightseeing, pulls out a bedroll and camps down for the night in the ruins. This is an obvious mistake on her part and you can probably figure out why. Yes, the Blind Dead rise from their tombs and enjoy her tasty blood after a short (and magnificently filmed) chase through the dark, mist shrouded scenery.

Her body is spotted the next day by the conductor of the train and his son, but they have no desire to stop in this area. They report her location to the authorities who in turn recover it and inform her friends. This leads her friends to learning the legend of the Blind Dead before hiring two of the scummiest people they can find in town to take them out to the ruins. Well, something else interesting happens as well, but I’ll leave that alone here. Once there we get to see our scummy characters get even more scummy, our lead characters get less leading-like, and the Blind Dead go on a killing spree apparently over being cheesed off over all these people crawling all around their turf all of a sudden.

The Blind Dead go on a murderous ride on undead horses that makes the locals regret having decided to keep living anywhere near the Templar’s old stomping grounds. This leads us to copious amounts of bloodshed and an appropriately gloomy and downbeat ending that’s also oddly ambiguous. 

How’s it Look? 

The film looks absolutely amazing for a low budget Spanish film from 1972. Again, a large part of that was Ossorio’s gifted eye for visuals. While many of the more mundane scenes look like they could have plucked out of any of 1,000 other films of this kind, many of the scenes with the Blind Dead are absolutely stunning. One of our first looks at them, one of the scenes that sucked me into their world as a young first time viewer decades ago now, is the Blind Dead atop their horses riding out in to the night and on the hunt. The scene is shot in slow motion, mist crawling out of the shadows, and the tattered remains of their uniforms flowing behind them.

The Blind Dead themselves are an impressive visual as well. Originally Ossorio was having difficulty getting backers to cover the financing for the film. Producers shot down the idea of the film as a possible success because it lacked anything familiar (vampires, werewolves, ghosts) to hook the expected audiences and wanted something that was more of a known quantity to star as the film’s big bad if they were to move forward on it. Ossorio responded by going home to create Blind Dead masks and to paint portraits of what the Blind Dead would look like in order to prove that, yes, these things were capable of standing on their own in the film.

His original design stayed largely intact, and it translated to the big screen quite well. The Blind Dead look like mummified, desiccated corpses. What you see of their bodies is covered by dark, rotted flesh pulled tight on bone- and that’s only when they still have flesh on them. They’re very skeletal in appearance, their hands being the most pure skeleton-like, and the effect combined with their hoods and robes invokes the classic image of death in a somewhat subtle way.

The wardrobe and prop people on this film deserve some serious (if much delayed) appreciation as well. The Blind Dead outfits genuinely look like they’ve been worn by undead knights who have been resting in their tombs and graves for the last several centuries when not out on killing sprees. Their outfits look dirty, old, worn out, and every bit authentic to the nature of the Blind Dead.  The complete package of their appearance-, combined with their slow, deliberate movements and the absence of any real sound from them –make the Blind Dead amazingly chilling and creepy figures in horror.

Additionally, while not a visual, the visual elements are greatly enhanced by the film’s enjoyably unnerving soundtrack. The score itself is strange and jarring enough, but its creep factor is then multiplied by haunted, wailing vocals.

Oh, the Games They Played 

Anyone familiar with the history of exploitation cinema knows how badly fly by night distributors and theaters would sometimes rip-off the audiences. Sometimes films would just have their names changed as they made appearances in the same theaters over and over again over a stretch of a year or two. Another trick along the same lines was creating a franchise where there was none. Films would not only be renamed, they would be renamed after an existing film and given a series number. Probably one of the easier to find examples of this in the DVD age is the box set of zombie films containing Zombie 3, Zombie 4, and Zombie 5. None of these films were originally carrying those names, and none of them were ever meant to be sequels to Fulci’s Zombi (AKA Zombie 2: The Dead are Among Us) or connected to each other in any way. Hell, for that matter Zombie 5 doesn’t even have any real zombies in it until the very end, and even then it’s questionable calling them zombies.

Well, the Blind Dead, particularly the first of the four films in the series, got all of these treatments and then some. Tombs of the Blind Dead alone has around ten different English language titles, and it was plugged into several other film franchises. In the case of the one series, Mark of the Devil, it was marketed as both Mark of the Devil IV and V. But for me, the thing that makes Tombs of the Blind Dead the crowning jewel of examples of this kind of thing is the scam they perpetrated when the film debuted in America in 1973.

In life the knights were supposed to be big burly men with big burly beards. While their beards lost some of their burly in death, they still had some substantial patches of thick, long black hair on their faces. Combined with their dead, darkened skin pulled tight on their skulls, this gave them an appearance (to at least one fly by night distributor) that was almost simian. Thus the plan was hatched.

The sequence in the film explaining the origin of the Blind Dead was edited out of the original US release. Replacing it, tacked on to the very beginning of the film, was instead a montage of stock footage shots of barren landscapes with a voice-over explaining how thousands of years ago mankind rose up to torture and kill a race of super intelligent apes who had been ruling the Earth. Mankind burnt their eyes out before killing them, and the leader of the apes swore he would one day return with his people to take their revenge before mankind had the chance to destroy the Earth. Your last bit of bad DJ voiced voice-over exclaims wildly that this day is now, and the title Revenge from Planet Ape flashes up on the screen.

In 1973.

During the height of Planet of the Apes mania.

They didn’t simply play coy with the name and the new intro either. No, they went much further than that. They sent posters and newspaper ads out featuring an extremely Planet of the Apes looking ape on them despite no apes of any kind ever making an appearance in the film.

Can you imagine being the poor schmuck in the pre-internet age that walks into the theater and buys a ticket thinking he’s about to see a Planet of the Apes film and gets undead knights and blood sucking dead bodies instead? Some theaters were just as bad as the distributor. You can find ads in old newspapers, one reproduced here, where theaters double featured the film with an actual Planet of the Apes film. 

But are they Zombies? 

This is the reason I put the quotes around the word zombie at the start of the article. The Blind Dead have been shoved into the zombie genre largely- at least I think so –because studios and distributors love being able to stick everything in a box with a simple and familiar description. But the truth is the Blind Dead are very much not at all zombie-like in the least.

Ossorio, and he talks about this himself in some interviews, grew up in a part of Spain where the older generation was still telling the children the horrific and scary local legends as bedtime stories. He grew up being fed the legends and lore from that part of Europe where stories were filled with very old versions of the revenant, the ravenous dead, the cursed ghost, and other such things. The Blind Dead are much more like a hybrid mixture of several of these legends than they are any zombie we’re familiar with either pre or post the Night of the Living Dead pop culture zombie.

This is actually a pretty important thing to keep in mind if you’re a first time viewer of the film. These things do not act like the zombies you’re familiar with. Likewise, the film itself does not itself feel completely like a zombie film. In some ways the story in the film is structured more like a ghost story, and the result is a slower paced film; especially in the first two thirds of the film.

If you’ve never seen it, this is a film that is absolutely worth watching, but it is not a fast paced film in the more modern zombie mold. Set your expectations more towards “ghost story” with bonus blood and gore. But, yeah, see this film. It’s worth at least one viewing if just to see a creation that was a fantastic entry into the horror genre.

The various Blind Dead films can be found on Amazon for under $10 a film. Blue Underground currently has the best prints with a few extra features. They also still have available a set in a coffin box containing all four Blind Dead films along with a bonus disc filled with extras that are both entertaining and informative. 

Bonus Post Content 

If you want to hear four people talking about how enjoyable the films in the Blind Dead franchise can be, check out this Decades of Horror from February where I got to join Bill Mulligan, Doc Rotten, and the Black Saint for a little over an hour of Blind Dead chat. We covered more there than I did here- including some interesting history on Ossorio himself and some goofy behind the scenes talk.


Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC, Adrenalin Productions. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.

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