Burial Ground/The Nights of Terror/Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror/Zombie 3: The Nights of Terror/Night of Terror/The Zombie Dead/Zombie Horror/Le Notte del Terrore (1980) -***
It’s no mean feat determining which of the Italian zombie movies is the absolute worst— there are just so many of the things, and so many of them are so very awful! But there’s one title which can be counted upon to come up each and every time the subject is discussed by knowledgeable viewers, one which probably tops more people’s “bottom five” lists than any other: Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground/Le Notte del Terrore. Keep in mind, Burial Ground is not my personal choice. While I despised it utterly when I first saw it some fifteen years ago, I now find it highly and consistently entertaining in its hapless wretchedness, which is more than I can say, for example, for the real Zombie 3. (Remarkable how it changes things when you know what you’re getting yourself into ahead of time, isn’t it?) But make no mistake, Burial Ground certainly is astonishingly bad. Next to Andrea Bianchi, Umberto Lenzi looks like Dario Argento. He makes Lamberto Bava look like Mario Bava. He makes Bruno Mattei… Okay. So Mattei still looks like Mattei even when Andrea Bianchi is in the room with him— but nevertheless, my point stands. This is an A-list incompetent we’re dealing with, here.
Already by 1980, one Italian filmmaker or another had given us zombies spawned by disease, mad science, black magic, and the unintended side-effects of technological progress. So what was left for Bianchi and company to use as their means of raising the hungry dead? How about the Etruscans? They’re always good for some ancient and unspeakable evil, right? Sure they are. So with that in mind, we join archaeologist Professor Ayres (Renato Barbieri) as he pokes around inside a most un-Etruscan-looking tomb within the most un-Etruscan-looking Etruscan cemetery next door to the villa he’s borrowing from an old friend of his named George (Roberto Caporali, of Terror Express). We don’t know just what Ayres has found (and we won’t until the very end of the movie, at which point we’ll all form a nice, long line for the privilege of bitch-slapping Andrea Bianchi), but he’s terribly excited about it. Evidently it’s “Incredible!” but it “must be true!” Whatever, man. In any case, Ayres makes a second trip out to the tomb in the middle of the night, and no sooner has he begun fiddling with the plaque attached to one of the sarcophagi than the rest of them slide open and disgorge a small army of the very worst zombies you’ll ever live to see. Not impressed by the professor’s mystifying claims that he’s their friend, and that he wants to help them, the zombies surround Ayres, fixing to munch guts.
The next day, George returns to the villa, bringing with him his newly acquired family and several friends. The friends take the form of two couples: James and Leslie (Simone Mattioli and Play Hotel’s Antonella Antinori) and Mark and Janet (Gian Luigi Chirizzi, from The Nuns of St. Archangel and Terror Express, and Karin Well, from The Convent of Sinners and Symphony of Love). The family consists of wife Evelyn (Maria Angela Giordano, of A Girl for Satan and The Lusty Wives of Canterbury) and Evelyn’s teenage son, Michael— evidently the product of a previous marriage. Now before we go any further, I’d like to say a few words about this kid. Like I said, Michael is a teenager, and only just barely so. The actor who plays him, on the other hand, is a horrible little glandular fuck-up man named Peter Bark, who is far and away the most terrifying thing in Burial Ground. Though his body is that of a thirteen-year-old boy, he has the face of a 35-year-old man; God alone knows what his actual age was. What’s more, he plays a pivotal role in the sleaziest two scenes of the whole damn movie, a fact which only makes him more of a flesh-crawler.
Now where was I? Oh, yes— at the entrees taking their places for the zombie buffet. George and his guests are greeted at the door by the servants, Nicholas (Claudio Zucket, from Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century and The Beast in Space) and Kathleen (Anna Valente), who inform them that Professor Ayres is nowhere to be found. George says that’s only to be expected of an introverted eccentric like Ayres, and assures everybody that they’ll get to hear all about his discoveries (“something about the survival of the dead…”) soon enough. In the meantime, the three groups disperse about the house and set themselves up in their respective bedrooms. This, of course, means three separate sex scenes, the last of which turns icky when Michael walks in on his mom and stepfather, and sticks around long enough to get a good, detailed eyeful.
The next morning, there’s still no sign of Ayres, but George and his companions don’t let it get them down any more than they did the night before. Instead, they pair off again, and go wandering about the villa’s grounds. And as soon as each couple is safely out of reach of the other two (with Michael hovering jealously in the background as his stepfather teaches Evelyn how to shoot a pistol), along come the zombies, who apparently aren’t shy at all about going out in broad daylight. Pretty fast, huh? I don’t know— maybe there was a nationwide plot shortage in Italy in 1980, and Bianchi had already used up most of his ration for the year on some other film. Or maybe he’s just a great, big shithead. Either way, that’s just about all the story we’re going to get; from here on out, it’s body count time. Our heroes retreat to the villa, but it does them relatively little good. These zombies, you see, are from the Gifted and Talented program, and are quite capable of using tools and setting traps even if they’re no faster nor more coordinated than the ones in Lucio Fulci’s movies. They attack the doors and shutters with axes. They use a long-hafted scythe to decapitate Kathleen when she leans her head out of a second-story window. They climb up the columns supporting the portico in order to gain access to the villa from the balcony on the façade. One by one, the folks in the villa die, and one by one, they rise again to join the onslaught of the undead themselves. Eventually (remember those two mega-sleazy scenes I warned you about?), things get so bad that little Michael cracks, and the Oedipal tendencies that have been lying in wait just below the surface of his personality come bursting out. That’s right— he molests his mom when she tries to comfort him after an especially intense wave of zombie attacks! She stops him before it goes too far, but just you wait… It’ll be getting a whole lot worse later on. After Michael gets zombified himself, that is…
So, let’s say you’re in a big-ass villa under siege from Etruscan zombies. You’ve re-killed a bunch of them, but you’ve taken a lot of casualties yourselves, and the gut-munching undead show no signs of leaving you alone any time soon. What do you do next? How about letting them in? No, really! That’s just what Mark suggests as a solution to the zombie problem! For some reason, it occurs to him that maybe it isn’t the people inside the villa, but the villa itself that the zombies are interested in (‘cause, you know, that would be entirely consistent with their penchant for killing and eating anybody who comes within arm’s reach), and he convinces his fellow survivors to follow along with his manifestly idiotic plan. Sure enough, the onrushing (or on-hobbling, really) zombies make short work of a couple more characters, leaving Mark, James, Evelyn, and Janet to hole up in the attic and cower for their lives.
The funny thing is, the zombies never do find their hiding place, and the villa is an undead-free zone when our heroes awaken in the morning. Now if you thought Operation Let the Zombies In was going to mark the intellectual low point for Mark, Evelyn, and the rest, then just you wait. You’re not going to believe what happens next. The four survivors— one of whom, I should point out, has a wounded ankle— leave the villa, and instead of climbing into the cars which are sitting perfectly intact and unmolested in the driveway, they go wandering off into the countryside, the layout of which is completely unknown to them! These people are geniuses, I tell you— geniuses. Half dragging, half carrying the injured Janet the entire time, they eventually run across a monastery, where James attempts to impose upon the monks for assistance. Unfortunately for him, those monks aren’t refusing to speak to him because of their vows of silence. Rather, the whole fucking monastery is inhabited solely by zombies (and not the Etruscan ones who crawled out of that cemetery, either, I might add— I haven’t the faintest clue where this bunch came from), and James becomes a heavy brunch in short order. Mark, Evelyn, and Janet are forced to flee once more, and once again they do so entirely oblivious to the siren-song of their cars lying neglected in front of the villa. This time, their flight takes them to a private residence, but it turns out to be the place where all the Etruscan ghouls went after they finished up at the villa last night. Zombie Michael is there too (here we go again, kids…), and Evelyn is so happy to see him up and walking around that she forgets all about that flesh-eating undead business, and rushes over to embrace him. In fact, Evelyn is also so happy that she doesn’t mind one little bit when her son starts groping her again— not until he bites off one of her tits and eats it, anyway! Mark and Janet fare no better against the rest of the zombie horde, and at last, with the entire cast eliminated and the movie well and truly over, Bianchi finally deigns to fill us in on Professor Ayers’s shocking discovery. The concluding carnage is overlain by a title card quoting the Profesy (“profesy” with an “f,” mind you) of the Black Spider, which tells us, in essence, that there will be zombies. You figure? I mean, don’t you think that’s kind of a given, what with the 80 fucking minutes of zombies we just saw?!?!
It’s no wonder that at least one of its distributors attempted to pass Burial Ground off as a sequel to Fulci’s Zombie. You could almost set your watch by the mechanical recurrence of images and set-pieces which Bianchi recycled from that movie. Most conspicuous are the deaths of Leslie and James. Though it stops short of copying the eye-gouging itself, Leslie’s demise plays out as an almost exact duplicate of Mrs. Menard’s in the Fulci film. She and the zombies are on opposite sides of a portal (the window to the balcony here, an interior door in Zombie) when they seize her, and as the woman is slowly dragged outside to her death, she is horribly lacerated by debris (broken glass in Bianchi’s version, jagged splinters in Fulci’s). The aftermath of the Menard woman’s demise is also echoed in the way Mark, Janet, and Evelyn discover what has become of James at the hands of the zombie monks. When they burst into the monastery dining hall in response to all the screams and commotion, they find the undead brothers seated in a circle around James, peacefully and contentedly eating him, completely ignoring their living audience. As if you couldn’t have guessed, Fulci did a better job with both scenarios, if for no other reason than that his cameraman was more skilled and his zombies more convincing. Cinematographer Gianfranco Maioletti was a novice, and if the tiny handful of subsequent credits he has to his name are any indication, he never improved all that much after this. Whether because Bianchi wanted it that way or because Maioletti just didn’t know any better, Burial Ground is ugly to look at and compositionally dull, except in a couple of brief shots which display a small flicker of imagination— about what you would expect from a first-timer like Maioletti. The hilariously inept makeup effects are surprising, however, because Rosario Prestopino has a far more impressive track record. He assisted Giannetto De Rossi on Zombie and Franco Rufini on The Gates of Hell, and later on, he was the chief makeup man behind the very well-realized zombies in Demons and Demons 2. The problem here appears to be one of overreaching. Burial Ground’s zombies are so extensively decomposed that the only way to achieve the desired effect on the movie’s rather meager budget was to go for full-face masks made of plaster or rubber, and Prestopino never succeeds in making said masks look like anything else.
Of course, Burial Ground might still have gotten away with it all were it not for Piero Regnoli. Regnoli was a veteran screenwriter, but just look what he’s been wrting: City of the Walking Dead, Malabimba, Caligula’s Hot Nights… Would you trust a writer with that resume? About the one positive thing I can say regarding the story here is that it moves fast. Admittedly, that’s because it invests not one solitary second in character development (apart, that is, from establishing Michael’s revolting incestuous longing for his mother) and exhibits not the slightest concern for sense or coherence. It simply hints— hints, for Christ’s sake!— at an excuse for the dead to rise, and then plunges right on ahead into the gut-munching. Now I’m all in favor of getting to the point, you understand, but I also think it’s a good idea to establish what the point is first. Apparently Regnoli never thought of that. Which is just one of the many reasons why I’ve grown to love Burial Ground in spite of myself.