Greetings, readers, Bill here again. Now, if you’ve been on our Facebook page lately you know I’ve been promising another screener review and then diving head-first into some Spanish Horror — some of you longtime readers will recall that I prefer the stuff coming out of Spain in the 1970s to the stuff that was coming out of Italy during the same period. Well, the screener review didn’t pan out because the link they sent me to view the film didn’t want to work, so how about some Spanish horror? I’d reviewed this film very early in Radiation-Scarred Reviews’ history, but I reviewed the heavily-cut English language dubbed version. Tonight I’m watching the original Spanish language version, as put out by Blue Underground – I picked up the coffin-boxed set of the entire Blind Dead franchise, complete with documentary on director Amando de Ossorio, from them last year. But enough rambling preamble, let’s take a look at the film, shall we?
At a resort in Lisbon, Virginia runs into her old school friend Betty, and introduces her to her boyfriend Roger. When Roger invites Betty to join them for the remainder of their vacation, Virginia understandably becomes very jealous (a flashback revealing that Virginia and Betty had been lovers at school) and as Roger and Betty’s flirtations become more overt, Virginia leaps from the train, hiking to the nearby ruined monastery of Berzano.
Unfortunately, while ruined, Berzano is not uninhabited, as Virginia learns when the mummified remains of long-dead Knights Templar rise from their grave. Blinded before death, the undead hunt by sound, tracking Virginia to her hiding place by the sound of her panicked breathing and pounding heart.
The remainder of the film follows Betty and Roger as they attempt to find Virginia, piecing together the legend of the Templars along the way – learning that Berzano was the center of the Templars’ cult of black magicians, using knowledge gleaned in the East during the Crusades in attempts to achieve immortality. For this heresy, the Knights Templar were excommunicated and executed, hung up until the crows plucked the eyes from their heads. Roger and Betty soon learn just how immortal the Templars prove to be…
This is a beautiful film. Amando de Ossorio was a master; while they’re not zombies (de Ossorio was adamant about that), the Blind Dead trump Romero’s shambling gutmunchers as far as hungry undead go in my book. They’re far from mindless, being in fact cunning, planning creatures, capable of setting traps, utilizing their skills with the sword from life, and my favorite, riding horses. Live horses with skeletal riders! Even better, live horses with skeletal riders in slow motion! De Ossorio overcranks the camera whenever the Blind Dead are on screen, giving them an ominousness and a sense of unrelenting evil.
More importantly, de Ossorio builds an entire history and mythology for his Blind Dead; they’re not the Blind Dead because that’s the title of the film; he gives them a reason for existing and explains with care who they were and what they are now. While a lot of this explanation comes in the form of a big ol’ flashback sequence (complete with the still-living Templars torturing a naked girl and drinking her blood) narrated by a historian, it’s not the sole means by which the Templars are fleshed out to the audience; clues and hints about what they are are woven throughout the story, and a decent amount can be extrapolated from what we’re shown on the screen.
The film moves at a fairly leisurely pace, never hurrying towards its explosive climax; the first act, culminating in Virginia’s death at the gnarled hands of the Templars, takes up a good chunk of the film’s run-time, and it’s time very well spent. It introduces us to the Templars, their modus operandi, and gives the audience an idea of how they can be avoided or defeated, though unfortunately these methods don’t prove that useful to Virginia.
This section of the film is also my favorite in terms of the shots and atmosphere; when Virginia (played by the achingly-beautiful María Elena Arpón, aka “Helen Harp”) is initially exploring the ruins of Berzano by daylight, they seem open and airy, almost inviting. At night, as the Templars close in, those same ruins become claustrophobic, sinister, confining, a maze of passageways that the Templars can navigate but you can’t.
Unlike a lot of Italian horror, TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD isn’t just about intense visuals tied together by the thinnest vagaries of plot. While there are some elements to the film that don’t quite make sense (for example, Virginia inexplicably rising as a vampire in the morgue after her bloodless body is recovered from Berzano), for the most part the storytelling in TOMBS is paramount, and care is taken to make sure everything (well, almost) hangs together correctly.
And while it’s a gorgeously-shot (and seriously, get the Blue Underground edition; the colors are AMAZING and the print is pristine) piece of suspenseful storytelling, it doesn’t skimp on the Eurosleaze; from the revelation that Virginia and Betty were lesbian lovers to scenes of naked women being tortured by Satanic knights, gratuitous shots of María Elena Arpón’s gloriously tan-lined rump and a vicious rape sequence late in the film, it’s not a movie for the whole family. Add to that the amazingly downbeat ending…
Interestingly, There’s a scene in the film where two morgue attendants are discussing the body of Virginia, and one of them opines “she was asking for it, flaunting herself around like that. She was asking to be bitten.” I can’t tell if that’s bad subtitling, or still-relevant social commentary.
Final Analysis: Besides the glory that is Paul Naschy, this film contains everything that makes Spanish Horror so fascinating to me. Vivid colors, beautiful, dark-eyed women, blood and guts, T & A, and some of the best thought-out and watchable undead I’ve ever seen on film make this film a real winner and a must-see for fans of 1970s horror in my book. I legit cannot say enough good things about this film, and it deserves them all. Three sequels – RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD, THE GHOST GALLEON and NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS – continue the Templars’ legacy of evil, and I’m looking forward to reviewing those in the near future.
Overall, I give TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971)…
FIVE BARRELS OF TOXIC WASTE.