Dracula’s Dog/Zoltan, the Hound of Dracula (1978) -***
It sounds like a joke: “Well, let’s see… we’ve done Brides of Dracula, Son of Dracula, House of Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter… what does that leave? Ooh, wait— we haven’t done Dracula’s Dog yet, have we? Yeah, what do you say we do that next, eh?” It isn’t a joke, though. Not at all. In 1978, something really did convince producer/ director Albert Band (the notorious Charles Band’s slightly less notorious father) and writer Frank Ray Perilli that the absence of a movie about Dracula’s dog was an oversight that cried out to be corrected. And even more incredibly, having addressed that oversight, they really did just come right out and call the resulting film Dracula’s Dog. Is it any wonder that present-day distributors mostly prefer the British title, Zoltan, the Hound of Dracula?
We begin, appropriately enough, in Transylvania. A platoon of the Romanian army is conducting some kind of excavation (presumably in preparation for the construction of one of the nuke-proof bunkers that were so popular in those days) when they unexpectedly unearth a large man-made chamber far beneath the surface. To all appearances, it’s a tomb originally constructed in the Middle Ages, and if the inscriptions on the plaques sealing up the coffin cells are accurate, it didn’t fall out of use until sometime in the late 1920’s. But the most important thing about the unusual find is probably the surname carved into each of the plaques: Dracula. The lieutenant in charge of the operation (Bob Miller) orders the excavation halted until he has a chance to confer with his superiors at headquarters, and the platoon withdraws, leaving Private Maslov (Tom Gerrard) alone to guard the find overnight. Maslov doesn’t sleep well, partly because of the earth tremors that rock the area where the tomb was discovered, but mostly because of what happens as a result of those tremors. Two of the cells break open, and one of the coffins slides out onto the floor of the mausoleum. Maslov, overcome with curiosity, opens up the displaced coffin to reveal a shrouded body with a wooden stake driven through its chest. For no remotely understandable reason, Maslov pulls the stake loose, and the body’s chest suddenly begins to rise and fall with renewed breath. Maslov leans over the open casket at that point, with results that would have been exactly as expected were it not for one small detail— the vampire which springs up from the coffin and clamps its jaws around Maslov’s throat is a motherfucking dog!!!! Specifically, it’s some sort of short-haired, shiny-coated, pointy-faced hunting hound. I have no idea what the breed may be called, but it is a profoundly ugly animal, and I can’t imagine anybody except Count Dracula wanting to have the thing hanging around the house. Anyway, once the vampire dog has finished draining Maslov, it pads over to the second open cell and drags out the coffin inside. This it opens, at which point it removes the stake from the body within, which revives to become Mark of the Devil’s Reggie Nalder (who would be promoted to master vampire himself in Salem’s Lot the next year). A pair of flashbacks— one for Nalder and one for the dog (looks like The Hills Have Eyes, Part 2 wasn’t the first to employ that astoundingly bad idea after all)— come along thereafter to explain just what in the hell is going on here.
Nalder’s name turns out to be Veidt Schmidt. He was a Transylvanian peasant who lived on the property of some rich lady in the territory controlled by the Dracula family, and the ghastly hound— Zoltan— was his dog. Schmidt let the dog loose one night early in the century to investigate some sound it didn’t like, allowing Zoltan to interrupt Count Igor Dracula (Michael Pataki, from The Return of Count Yorga and The Bat People) in an attack on Schmidt’s sleeping landlady. Dracula bit the dog instead— no, really— and then followed it back to Schmidt’s place, where he converted the peasant into a parasitic half-vampire creature which this movie’s Van Helsing wannabe will later call a “fractional lamia.” A Renfield, basically. Schmidt spent the rest of his life in the vampire’s service until he was presumably killed along with both his master and his dog, although the full story of their end will never quite come out.
The next morning, the lieutenant returns to the tomb, bringing along not just the rest of his platoon, but his commanding officer, Major Hessel (Arlene Martel, of Chatterbox and Angels from Hell), as well. Hessel, in turn, summons a high-ranking military detective, Inspector Branco (Jose Ferrer, from The Big Brawl and The Sentinel), to assist her in dealing with the situation. Branco has seen Dracula tombs before, and is quite candid about accepting the reality of vampirism. He orders all the bodies removed from the tomb and burned, along with Private Maslov, who alarmingly registers certain weak vital signs despite exhibiting no trace of either pulse or heartbeat. Then Branco sets his mind to the puzzle of the two empty coffins. He figures out soon enough that one of them belonged to Veidt Schmidt, and he explains to Hessel why Schmidt’s resurrection is extremely bad news. A fractional lamia, you see, lacks a true vampire’s thirst for blood, and is able to function during the hours of daylight, but it is incapable of surviving long without a fully vampiric master. And while it is true that Count Igor was the last in the line of undead Draculas, he did have a human son who was shipped out of the country when he was about seven years old— right before the peasant uprising that destroyed the rest of the Dracula clan. It is Branco’s hypothesis that Veidt Schmidt will seek out Mikhail Dracula and attempt to turn him into a vampire. He really doesn’t know what to make of that second coffin, though, and I don’t see how we can blame him. After all, who would ever imagine a vampire dog on the loose? Okay, fine— who other than Albert Band and Frank Ray Perilli?
As for Mikhail Dracula, he’s now living in Los Angeles under the name of Michael Drake, and like his infamous ancestor, he’s played by Michael Pataki— whose heavy New York accent makes him just a little unconvincing as an Angeleno of Romanian extraction. When we meet Drake, he and his family— wife Marla (Jan Shutan, of This House Possessed), daughter Linda (Mansion of the Doomed’s Libby Chase), and son Steve (John Levin)— are preparing to leave for a two-week camping trip. And since the main villain in this movie is a vampire dog, they’ll be bringing along a whole pack of their own for Zoltan to menace later in the film. Leaving the keys to their house with neighbor Pat Parks (Cleo Harrington), the Winnebago Warriors set off into the countryside, failing to notice as they do that they’re being followed by a black LTD station wagon which somebody has modified to resemble the hearse for which there apparently wasn’t quite enough money in the budget.
When the Drake family arrive at their destination, Veidt Schmidt sets himself up just over the hill from them— close enough at hand for Zoltan to do his work when the sun goes down, but far enough away that the Drakes probably won’t notice the company. The Hound of Dracula begins making a nuisance of himself almost immediately, beginning when he ambushes and kills one of the Drakes’ new puppies. He also makes the rounds of the other nearby campsites, killing one camper who had noticed Schmidt’s car and vampirizing as many dogs as he can find, including the Drakes’ fully grown pets, Samson and Annie. Michael decides that the vacation has well and truly stopped being fun when a pair of outdoorsmen (bit-part regulars Simmy Bow, of Fairy Tales and Vamp, and JoJo D’Amore, from Alligator and The Sword and the Sorcerer) rescue Linda from an attack by both Zoltan and their own now-undead birddog. As a matter of fact, the Drakes are in the process of packing up their campsite for the trip home when Inspector Branco catches up with them, having been tipped off to their approximate whereabouts by Pat Parks. Branco manages to get Michael alone for a few minutes, long enough, at any rate, to tell him the story of his Old World heritage and to warn him of the danger he and his family currently face from Veidt Schmidt. Remarkably, Michael is willing to accept the inspector’s tale, at least on a sort of provisional basis, and he tells his wife that he’ll be sticking around at the campsite with Branco for another few days. Then, with his family safely out of the firing line, Michael joins Branco on the hunt for Schmidt; it won’t be until after they’ve found him that they grasp the connection between the half-vampire and the increasingly numerous and troublesome pack of undead dogs roaming the area.
I find it very difficult to believe that the same director could have been responsible for both I Bury the Living and Dracula’s Dog. The older movie had its problems, to be sure, but this film is more like the kind of crap Albert Band’s son would come up with! (I can just see it: Subspecies V: Dracula’s Dog.) It is a movie which is persistently and inescapably undone by its very premise. There are several scenes— most notably the one in which Drake and Branco are besieged in a tiny cabin by Zoltan and his pack— that come very close to working, only to implode in disgrace when the viewer suddenly remembers that these are vampire dogs we’re dealing with, and vampire dogs who are trying to get themselves adopted by an unwilling descendant of Count Dracula, at that. Matters were not helped any by the casting of Jose Ferrer and Michael Pataki as the heroes, either. Ferrer conveys the impression that he spent the whole of the shoot grumbling to himself, “I was Cyrano de Bergerac, for Christ’s sake— Cyrano de-Fucking-Bergerac!— and now look at me! Even that killer bee bullshit was better than this! I swear, when I get my hands on my agent…” And Pataki, meanwhile… Let’s just say that “New York accent” and “last of the Draculas” are antithetical propositions. There’s more to it than that, of course, but nothing else sums up so succinctly why Pataki was utterly wrong for the part. Finally, Dracula’s Dog enjoys the distinction of having what might just be the most ill-considered twist epilogue of the 1970’s— and that was a decade that saw a lot of ill-considered twist epilogues. I don’t want to spoil that twist for those who haven’t yet had a chance to bask in its glory, so I’ll limit myself to saying that it turns out there’s something even less frightening than a giant, killer bunny rabbit.