Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)
Tombs of the Blind Dead is an early '70s horror film from Spain that is starting, in its unaltered form, to get a bit more attention. Amando de Ossorio's tale of Satanic knights rising from the grave in rural Portugal sparked a number of official sequels by him, unofficial sequels down the years and, by extension, an entire Spanish horror industry. Paul Naschy and Jesus Franco had already established their own reputations, but this movie helped broaden the scope away from traditional monsters and Franco's sleazy arthouse films.
Until recently I have always felt that Spanish horror films took a back seat to Italy. While they are similar in a lot of ways it often seemed that Spanish directors envied the Italian industry and felt that they had to push things just a little further, but didn't have as much access to the pool of American actors that would fly over to Rome for a few days to earn some extra cash on the side. Spain - and Portugal, where this movie is largely filmed - had twin fascist dictators still hanging around at the time, which didn't always attract major talent to their film industry. When American actors did come to Spain it was often with Italian film companies making the classic spaghetti westerns, so one can't help but understand a bit of that envy, and recognize it in a movie like this.
Virginia White (María Elena Arpón) is on vacation in Lisbon, Portugal when she recognizes her old boarding school roommate Bette (Lone Fleming). Along with Virginia is a man named Roger (César Burner), and they invite Bette to come along with them to a hotel near the Spanish border. Unbeknownst to Roger the two women were more than just friends at one point, and Virginia is unhappy when Roger starts showing interest in Bette. Fed up with the whole thing she jumps off the train in the middle of nowhere, but soon finds the deserted medieval town of Berzano.
Berzano, unfortunately, has a dark past. A group of knights returning from the East brought with them the knowledge of eternal life, which required sacrifices and the worship of Satan. Excommunicated and executed, the knights were buried in the town, which soon was abandoned. Virginia's presence awakens them and, when Roger and Bette return looking for her, they are met by a police inspector (Rufino Inglés), as Virginia's body has been found with bite marks. Determined to find out what happened Roger and Bette team up with smugglers Pedro (José Thelman) and Nina (Verónica Llimerá) and soon find out the legends of Berzano are real.
The reason I was drawn to this movie was because it seemed to have a plot that was bit more unique than the normal zombie film. This did come before Dawn of the Dead and all its imitators, inspired more by Romero's first film as well as some of Mario Bava's work. The premise is that the knights, having had their eyes pecked out by crows while hanging, come back to life but are blind and must hunt their victims by sound. Combine that with beautifully filmed shots of a real ruined medieval town, decent makeup on the actors playing the knights and a number of shots of them riding ghostly horses through the night, and this should have been a new favorite of mine.
The problem is it doesn't stick to its premise. I imagined knights carefully stalking their victims. There is a little of this, but mainly they are just slowly moving around like any other classic zombie. They also drink blood, which is what keeps them alive, so they are more like zombie mummy vampires. And, it turns out that they can transform their victims into other zombies - sometimes, since the logic is fuzzy on this. There is a police inspector who does little, a professor who knows all about Berzano but also does little, and the zombies can be destroyed by fire - something that no one who goes to the town seems to figure out.
The whole method of getting things going is silly, and the whole idea of going to the village to see if zombie knights exist is silly as well. There always seems to be a lot of wandering around before anything interesting happens, and when it does it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story - and that includes a vicious rape scene at one point, where the rapist thinks he's done his victim a favor. The parts that are supposed to be disgusting to watch are relatively tame, save for a flashback scene where the living knights feed on a sacrificial victim and another where a mother is killed while holding her child. Those are actually the better parts, when it gets down to what I expected from the film, not the idea that raping a lesbian will suddenly make her "want it."
Tomb of the Blind Dead is a movie that had a good premise, had some decent directing, but in the end turned out to be a confused mess with characters who make stupid decisions or who are just pieces of garbage. Without the rape scene I could have forgiven most of the movie, despite being 20 minutes longer than it has to be, but other than some decent makeup and scenes of skeletal knights galloping slowly through the night, there's nothing really here worth seeing.
Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)
Time: 101 minutes
Starring: Lone Fleming, César Burner, María Elena Arpón
Director: Amando de Ossorio