Beast of Blood / Beast of the Dead / Blood Devils / Horrors of Blood Island / Return to the Horrors of Blood Island (1970) ***
Eddie Romero’s Blood Island films are not exactly noted for the amount of respect that they have attracted over the three decades since the last of them made the rounds of the world’s drive-ins and grindhouses back in 1970. But there’s one point on which Romero most assuredly deserves props: the Blood Island flicks started strong, and they ended strong as well. Beast of Blood, the last of the series and the only one to present itself as a direct sequel to any of the others, may not be the best of the bunch all around, but it is certainly the most exciting, the most aggressive, and the only one that shows any sort of growth from the previous installments. In making Beast of Blood, Romero demonstrated that he really did have some understanding of what had gone wrong with its immediate predecessors, and that he was capable of taking action to correct those shortcomings. Hell, he even managed to get a halfway decent performance out of John Ashley for once!
Beast of Blood also features an opening even more kick-ass than The Mad Doctor of Blood Island’s. Picking up at the instant that movie left off, it shows Dr. Bill Foster (a returning Ashley) on the deck of the freighter bringing him and Sheila Willard home from Blood Island, where they were nearly killed by the monster into which an insane scientist had transformed a long-missing man named Don Ramón Lopez. But as Foster is about to learn, his ties to Blood Island aren’t quite severed yet. The monstrous Don Lopez has survived the destruction of its creator’s laboratory, and what’s more, it has snuck aboard the very ship on which Foster now rides. The creature comes out of hiding with an axe in its hands, and begins chopping its way through the vessel’s crew. Foster does what he can to bring the situation under control, but his efforts accomplish very little; when the ship is destroyed by the raging gasoline fires that break out as a consequence of Foster’s struggles with the monster, he and it are the only ones to survive.
A year or so later, Bill Foster is a man obsessed. He returned home after a short sojourn among the islanders who rescued him when he washed ashore, but a combination of the fiery death of his love interest from the last movie and the conviction that, somewhere on Blood Island, the monster still lives has led him to ditch just about everything from his old life in preparation for a second foray to the accursed isle for a final showdown with the thing that was once Ramón Lopez. But it isn’t every day that a doctor working for a prominent philanthropic foundation noisily jumps ship to pursue some private vendetta, and Foster’s activities have drawn their share of media attention. A little bit of that attention catches up with him while he loads up his gear for the voyage back to Blood Island, in the form of reporter Myra Russell (Celeste Yarnall, from Around the World Under the Sea and The Velvet Vampire). Foster tries to “no comment” his way out of dealing with Myra, but she’s booked passage for herself on the very same ship, and he won’t be rid of her that easily.
While we’re on the subject of not being rid of people as easily as we might like, those are precisely the terms in which the natives of Blood Island see Bill Foster’s latest visit. As the only human to survive the monster’s final seaborne rampage, the villagers reckon him to have been “touched by the Evil One,” and thus more or less taboo. Even Ramu (Alfonso Carvajal, of Savage Sisters, returning from The Mad Doctor of Blood Island), the village headman and an old friend of the doctor’s, and Laida (Liza Belmonte), the girl who nursed Foster back to health after the shipwreck (and who may be intended to be the character the preceding film called “Marla”), are visibly displeased to see him again. Maybe they have a point, too. After all, Foster is here to go raking over the coals of that monster business from a year or so back, and that’s something the islanders would much rather put behind them once and for all— they even left the site of their old village in the interest of doing so. The fact that Bill’s arrival coincides with a new outbreak of strange goings on just underscores the point that much more sharply. As Ramu explains, though there may not yet be any sign of the Evil One itself, there have been plenty of zombie-like green-blooded men turning up on the periphery of the new village, and Dr. Lorca’s old sidekick, Razak (Bruno Punzalan once again), has been seen in the forest leading companies of warriors armed with Western weapons. It’s enough to get Foster thinking that Lorca may have survived the explosion of his lab after all.
Dr. Lorca is indeed alive, though he was so badly burned by the last movie’s climax that he’s now played by a different actor (Eddie Garcia, from Blood of the Vampires and Black Mama, White Mama), and he thinks it wise to have something to hold over Bill Foster’s head as long as the latter man is still poking around on Blood Island. To that end, he sends Razak to kidnap Myra while Foster is busy investigating the ruins of Lorca’s old villa. The way the doctor sees it, it simply would not do to have Foster disrupt the delicate business of seeking a cure for Don Ramón’s monster-hood, which is now so advanced that even Lorca is no longer safe from the creature he inadvertently loosed upon the world. Only by severing the monster’s head and keeping both it and its body alive in separate sets of restraints can Lorca continue his work free of danger, although I confess that I’m at a total loss regarding just what that work is at the moment, or how it relates to its stated aim of arresting Ramón’s rampant chlorophyll poisoning. All I can tell you is that it somehow involves shooting up captive islanders with mutant chlorophyll, waiting for the earliest toxicological symptoms to manifest themselves, and then sawing off their heads for temporary grafting onto Don Lopez’s body. Perhaps we should just take it at face value when Lorca later facetiously tells Foster that he’s “madder than ever.”
In any case, Foster has no intention of leaving Myra at the mercy of a monster-making madman, even if she happens to be both a newspaper reporter and a profound annoyance. And with a little help from Laida, Ramu, and the rest of the islanders, Bill thinks he’s got a chance to rid Blood Island of both monsters and mad doctors for good and all. Let’s just say Eddie Romero obviously hasn’t forgotten any of the techniques he learned back when war movies were Hemisphere Pictures’ stock in trade.
You know, the last thing in the world I expected when I fed Beast of Blood into my DVD player was to be legitimately impressed with it. Brides of Blood and The Mad Doctor of Blood Island had been fun films, but what made them fun was that they were so brazenly, shamelessly awful. That is far from the case with this movie, however; indeed, there is scarcely a single dimension in which Beast of Blood doesn’t represent a quantum advance over its predecessors. The most immediately apparent improvement is the new design for the chlorophyll monster, which fully realizes the potential that was mostly wasted in The Mad Doctor of Blood Island. In its present guise, the fiend that was once Don Lopez is as believably fearsome a creature as any yet put on a movie screen with this little money. It’s just a shame that it has so little to do throughout most of the film, its role limited mainly to the orgy of violence in the opening scene and its eventual attack on Dr. Lorca at the conclusion. What makes this doubly unfortunate is the considerable horrific potential inherent in the idea of the monster’s nearly indestructible decapitated body unleashing a reign of terror on the island at the behest of its artificially preserved head— after all, how the hell are you supposed to kill something that can so easily shrug off a goddamned beheading?!
As I said, the new monster makeup is the most obvious improvement, but it is by no means the most important. That honor goes to the acting, which is so far ahead of that in the last two Blood Island films that it is difficult to believe that so much of the cast from The Mad Doctor of Blood Island has returned for Beast of Blood. Granted, we’re still hardly talking Oscar-caliber work here, but any fair comparison between the vapid, colorless performance John Ashley turned in as Bill Foster the last time around and the much more driven, hard-headed interpretation he gives the character here is going to come out strongly in favor of the latter. Even more than the better work by the returning actors, however, it is the new Dr. Lorca that elevates Beast of Blood above its antecedents. Ronald Remy was an absolute disgrace in the role, his characterization so abysmally bad as to be all but immune to parody. Eddie Garcia, on the other hand, gives the character a sort of cracked dignity. In his hands, Lorca becomes by turns civilized, sarcastic, personable, and ruthless— just the sort of personality you want to see in a mad movie scientist. It is a weighty testament to Garcia’s effectiveness that his Lorca is enough to carry Beast of Blood through the long stretch in which Don Lopez lies strapped to a gurney in the basement with his head on a shelf at the far end of the room.
Of course, Eddie Romero himself deserves a lot of the credit for bringing Beast of Blood within a stone’s throw of the standard set by Terror Is a Man, even while wholeheartedly embracing the exploitation ethos of the two intervening Blood Island films. To an extent that I have rarely encountered elsewhere, his style in this movie seems to reflect a conscious understanding of the failures of its predecessors, along with a deliberate effort to avoid those failures now. Note the absence of that zoom-lens foolishness that previously attended every appearance of the chlorophyll monster, and the rather more believable-sounding dialogue that characterizes this outing. I also found myself admiring Romero’s almost total disregard for recap; while I’m sure it would make Beast of Blood a trifle hard to follow for anyone who has not seen The Mad Doctor of Blood Island, it has the salutary effect of keeping things moving right along. When Beast of Blood slows down, it’s usually for a reason, and the film wastes no time whatsoever on reestablishing things which at least half of the audience might plausibly be expected to know already.