Tombs of the Blind Dead / Crypt of the Blind Dead / Night of the Blind Dead / The Blind Dead / La Noche del Terror Ciego / La Noche de la Muerta Ciega (1971/1973) ***½
Let's face it— Spain is not very high on anybody’s list of countries recognized for quality filmmaking. This is especially true when it comes to genres traditionally dominated by an exploitation ethos: horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. At best, Spanish exploitation movies might be seen as a sort of poor relation to their better-known counterparts from across the western Mediterranean in Italy. There are a handful of Spanish genre films, however, that are equal to all but the best that the Italians have come up with, and in the field of horror, Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead/La Noche del Terror Ciego is almost certainly the leader of the pack. The first thing that must be borne in mind about this highly eccentric and unusual zombie movie is its date of release. Though 1971 was a good couple of years after George Romero first made zombies threatening again, it was also well before the big wave of Romero plagiarism hit Europe in 1979. De Ossorio even beat the makers of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie to the punch. What’s more, Tombs of the Blind Dead owes almost nothing to Night of the Living Dead; de Ossorio’s debt to Romero is limited to his similar blurring of the line between the zombie and the vampire. The appearance of de Ossorio’s zombies is entirely different; the Blind Dead are possessed of both intelligence and conscious purpose; and most importantly, whereas Romero offered no explanation for the resurrection of the dead beyond some inconclusive hints in the direction of a space probe returning from Venus, de Ossorio gives his undead villains a fully developed and unapologetically supernatural back-story.
A brief history lesson is in order at this point. While the First Crusade (launched in 1099) was successful in wresting control of the Holy Land away from the Seljuk Turks, it ended with the newly established Crusader States of the Near East in an extremely precarious position. A crusader’s vows were binding for only 40 days, and at the end of that period, the bulk of the army that reconquered Jerusalem returned to Europe. For the most part, only those crusaders who had older brothers— that is to say, those who had no birthrights to go home to in France or Italy or Germany— stuck around. The Muslims could be counted upon to want their former Levantine territories back, and there was no way the handful of Western knights remaining in Jerusalem and Antioch were going to be able to resist a determined counterattack, even with the backing of Byzantium. Nor was another crusade a sufficient answer to the problem; all that could accomplish was the postponement of the inevitable for another 40 days. What the Crusader States needed was a permanent standing army. In 1119, a pair of intensely pious knights named Hugh of Payn and Godfrey of Saint-Omer came to the rescue with an ingenious strategy the likes of which had never yet been tried. Rather than relying upon an inconstant supply of short-term crusaders, the Holy Land would depend for its defense upon a dedicated order of warrior monks. This was a radical notion— the fighting nobility seemed temperamentally ill-suited to living the life of a monk, while the monastic community was just about the only place in the society of Western Europe where the pacifist ideas of early Christianity still held much sway during the Middle Ages— but the circumstances were sufficiently pressing that resistance was overcome fairly quickly. The Knights of the Temple of Solomon, or Knights Templar for short, were officially sanctioned as a monastic order on Christmas Day, 1119, and for close to 200 years, they were a major military and political force both in the Levant and in Europe as well. But after the final conquest of the Crusader States by the Muslims in 1303, the order fell upon progressively harder times. Their original rationale gone and their glorious reputation tarnished by defeat and scandal, the Templars wound up on the wrong side of the French King Philip IV’s plans for the aggrandizement of his already extensive dominions. Philip wanted a to lead a new crusade to the Middle East, not only to retake the Holy Land, but to seize Constantinople and the rest of the tottering Byzantine Empire. In order to do this, Philip believed he would need the support of both the Templars and their rivals, the Knights of the Hospital. (Once the Templars got the ball rolling, orders of fighting monks started cropping up wherever Christendom shared a frontier with warlike peoples of different faiths.) But because of the ill will between the two orders, that just wasn’t going to happen unless some major changes took place. With that in mind, Philip convinced his pet pope, Clement V, to command the merger of the Templars and the Hospitalers, and when the grand master of the former objected, the king and his allies whipped up a set of mostly bogus allegations linking the Templars to the Waldensian and Cathar heretics who were still giving him so much trouble in Provence and Toulouse. The Inquisition got involved, the Knights of the Temple were abolished as a monastic order, and many of their former members were burned at the stake. With their official existence ending in such a gaudy and spectacular manner, it was probably inevitable that the following centuries would see ever more fantastic legends, both glorious and sinister, attaching themselves to the Templars. Most of these focused on what secrets the monkish knights might have learned during their long tenure in the mystical and mysterious East. It is this pool of rumor and speculation that de Ossorio drew upon when creating the Blind Dead.
Virginia (Elena Arpon, from The Hunchback of the Rue Morgue), a girl from Lisbon, is on vacation in the country with her new boyfriend, Roger (Green Inferno's Cesar Burner), when she unexpectedly encounters an old friend of hers. Betty (Lone Fleming, from Where Time Began and The Possessed) is considerably older than Virginia, and it appears that the former woman had a relationship almost of mentorship with the latter when Virginia was just a teenager. Roger suggests that Betty join Virginia and him on the camping trip they plan on taking the next day, setting up an atypically complex love triangle. You see, Roger and Betty both find each other quite attractive, and because Roger’s relationship with Virginia is in the very earliest stage of its development, the temptation for him to switch allegiances is strong. And to make matters worse, Betty and Virginia had been intimate with each other some years ago— Virginia doesn’t know which of her companions to be more jealous of! Tensions among the travelers build rapidly on the train ride across the Portuguese countryside until Virginia decides she’s had enough, gathers up her bags, and jumps off of the slow-moving locomotive near a ruined monastery called Berzano. We’d know this was a bad idea even if we didn’t get to listen in on the conductor arguing with his fire-stoker son over whether or not it’s too dangerous to stop the train and bring her back aboard.
Some places just have bad mana— they’re creepier at high noon than most of the world is in the dead of night. Berzano is one of these, as Virginia discovers once she reaches its crumbling confines. Everything from its maze of rubble-strewn rooms to its courtyard cemetery full of ankh-shaped headstones seems suffused with an aura of evil. But if the ticket-taker on the train knew what he was talking about, Berzano is the only shelter within a good 40 miles, so Virginia reckons she may as well spend the rapidly approaching night there. She’s just gotten undressed and taken what looks like a sleeping pill when she starts hearing noises from the courtyard: sounds of movement accompanied, incredibly enough, by what appear to be muffled voices chanting. Virginia is too deep within the building to see this, but those curiously marked graves outside are opening up to disgorge an army of withered, eyeless, skeletal corpses dressed in moldering cloaks and rusty chainmail. The zombie knights mount their presumably zombie horses, and ride through the monastery complex toward the chamber where Virginia up until recently was trying to get some sleep. Once they’re indoors and away from their horses, the zombies’ pursuit of the girl is slow and strangely undirected, but it becomes far more focused every time she screams or whimpers (which is often). And to Virginia’s stunned horror, her chances of surviving the night get worse when she manages to evade her stiffly shambling attackers and ride away from Berzano on one of their horses. The undead may be slow on foot, but on horseback is another matter, and they’re much better riders than Virginia. She doesn’t even make it to the railroad tracks before she is overtaken and overwhelmed. The police find her bloodless body, marked by dozens of obviously human bites, the next morning.
Roger and Betty don’t learn of Virginia’s fate for several days. Roger is surprised to find her not at the hotel when he returns from camping with Betty, and the two of them resolve to make the trip out to Berzano to look for her. The locals are horrified to hear this, but the person they hit up for an explanation— the waitress at their hotel restaurant—says she is forbidden by the management to talk about it. All she’ll say is that the old monastery is reputed to be haunted. Not to be dissuaded by rustic superstition, Roger and Betty rent a couple of horses and set out. At the monastery, they find first Virginia’s campsite, then a couple of police inspectors. The detectives tell them about Virginia, and then take them into town to identify the body. Later on, Betty learns from her assistant at the mannequin factory she runs (a girl who grew up in a village not too far from Berzano) what the story of the monastery is. Nina (Veronica Llimera, from A Hatchet for the Honeymoon and Tender and Perverse Emanuelle) is a little unclear on the details, but Berzano was once the local headquarters of the Knights Templar, and the restless spirits of the long-dead excommunicates are said to inhabit it still, rising up after darkness falls and going in search of the blood they need to sustain their unclean immortality. A subsequent visit to a professor in Lisbon fills in a few more blanks. When the Templars came back from the Holy Land, they brought with them powerful black magic— including the secret of eternal life. Eventually, their Satanic activities attracted official attention (there are only so many virgins you can sacrifice before people start asking questions, you know), and the whole lot of them were tried for heresy, slain, and strung up from the battlements of Berzano so that the neighborhood peasants could benefit from the moral lesson of watching the crows peck out the Templars’ eyes. But if the legends are to be believed, the immortality magic the Templars practiced while they were alive was effective enough that they were able to cling to some form of life even after their execution. Roger and Betty aren’t sure they buy all of that, but Virginia’s body was covered with wounds made by human teeth and it was completely drained of blood. The cops, for their part, have a different theory. They think a gang of smugglers who operate out of the vicinity of Berzano are using the old legends to scare people away from their territory. Divulging this information to Roger and Betty has the unintended effect of sending them off on their own investigation into their friend’s death.
Reasoning that Pedro (Joseph Thelman, from Night of the Sorcerers and The Lorelei’s Grasp), the leader of the smugglers, would jump at the chance to deflect suspicion away from his gang, Roger and Betty seek him out. Their first meeting convinces them that, whatever else he may be, Pedro is no killer, and Roger talks him and his girlfriend (Maria Silva, of The Wicked Caresses of Satan and The Awful Dr. Orlof) into helping discover exactly what happens at Berzano after dark. If they had waited around town just another day or two, the two wannabe sleuths would have known ahead of time that such a thing is tantamount to suicide. While our heroes are out soliciting Pedro’s cooperation, Virginia comes to life in the morgue, slaughters the attendant, and goes next door to attack Nina at the mannequin shop. This, of course, is nothing compared to what awaits the rest of the cast on their night at the old monastery.
If you’re looking for deep characterization, insightful dialogue, or airtight logical consistency, you've come to the wrong place. Tombs of the Blind Dead performs better in those departments than most horror films of its time and place, but it’s still a European zombie movie, with all the limitations that implies. Where it excels is in Amando de Ossorio’s fresh and imaginative approach to the material, along with his exceptionally astute use of some terrific locations. The great thing about shooting horror flicks in Europe is that the countryside is simply littered with creepy old ruins from the Middle Ages— nothing maximizes an atmosphere of horror like a real decaying castle. When combined with an eerie soundtrack of Gregorian chants and some of the best day-for-night cinematography the cash-starved Spanish movie industry had to offer, the authentic scenery is most effective. De Ossorio does such a good job with this stuff, in fact, that even such seemingly terrible ideas as filming a horseback chase scene entirely in slow motion come out right.
It would be a mistake to disregard the importance of de Ossorio's distinctive zombies themselves, however. The Blind Dead are some of the most intimidating zombies in the business. Part of it is their unique character design, realized by an unexpected combination of extras in full-face masks and simple but impressive puppetry. Because the undead Templars are portrayed as desiccated and mummified, the immobility and awkwardness imparted to the zombies by the use of masks and puppets actually makes them more believable than would probably have been the case had more conventional makeup been used. But beyond all of that, it is the mythos behind them that enables the Blind Dead to stand out from the hordes of interchangeable gut-munching corpses that populate most zombie films. And somehow it’s the smallest detail— their blindness— that is the most disturbing thing about them. Knowing that the Templars wouldn’t be able to find their prey if it would just shut the fuck up ought to make the zombies less scary, and yet it does just the opposite by allowing the undead knights’ victims an advantage that isn’t worth nearly as much as it might seem. After all, there are some sounds a person can’t control— the frantic beating of a terror-stricken heart, for example. It’s no wonder that de Ossorio would direct three sequels to Tombs of the Blind Dead over the following four years. What’s surprising is that the Templar series didn’t spawn a plague of knockoffs the way Romero’s movies did.