Amando de Ossorio, 1971
Starring: Lone Fleming, César Burner, Maria Elena Arpon
College friends Betty and Virginia meet up at the local pool and reunite. Virgina’s friend Roger invites Betty along on a recently planned trip through the country. Though she agrees, it turns out that Virginia hasn’t quite forgotten about the affair she and Betty had in school. She becomes resentful of the flirting between Betty and Roger and hops off the train, determined to go camping in the scenic countryside alone. It seems the ruins she chose to camp in holds the graves of undead Knights Templar, executed hundreds of years ago because of Satan-worshipping, blood drinking, and sacrificing young women.
The knights rise from their tombs and feast upon Virginia before spreading throughout the countryside. Roger and Betty search for her, eventually discovering her mangled body at the morgue. She rises, undead, and kills a morgue worker. She also tracks a young girl to the factory where Betty creates mannequins and attempts to kill her. Meanwhile, Betty and Roger meet with a medieval history professor at the library. He explains the legend of the knights to them and seems bizarrely excited when he learns that the dreaded knights have arisen. The flesh-eating knights are heading towards the city and it doesn’t look like Betty and Roger will be able to stop them…
Also known as Crypt of the Blind Dead, Night of the Blind Dead, or The Blind Dead, director Amando de Ossorio’s first film in a four-part Blind Dead series is one of the best known films in all of Spanish horror. Ossorio mined history for his script and used general information about the Knights Templar as the basis of his script. The Templars were an aristocratic, 200-year-old organization declared heretics by the king after a series of political issues, and then tortured and burned alive. Ossorio envisioned them as blood-drinking Satanists obsessed with eternal life. Because their eyes were pecked out by birds after their execution, the knights are blind. Ossorio also never really reveals why the Knights are revived from their graves. This detail never really bothered me, because I always assumed Betty’s sudden arrival in the abandoned monastery roused them from their slumber. Another unexplained detail is why the Knights are able to ride horses. Are the horses undead? Where did they come from? Where they executed too? I’ve always thought this was such a cool detail that I ignored some of its more ridiculous aspects.
The Knights are only zombies in a loose sense, though their bites do turn their victims into the flesh-craving undead. While Ossorio’s plot is pretty basic, the creation of the Knights as his main villains was an inspired decision. They remain among the most creative monsters in ‘70s horror. Though they are often referred to as Knights Templar, they are never actually called that within the film, but are referred to as “Knights from the East.” Their makeup from Luis Campos looks wonderful. The bony, desiccated Knights are shrouded in moldy robes and their skeleton hands reach eagerly towards their prey. The Knights’ blindness was an interesting touch and required some effective moments of silence throughout the film.
Genre regulars Cesar Burner (Green Inferno), Lone Fleming (The Possessed), Joseph Thelman (Night of the Sorcerers), and Maria Silva (The Awful Dr. Orlof) all give decent performances, but the atmosphere and set are the real stars of Tombs of the Blind Dead. The decaying, isolated monastery, heavy with fog during the nighttime shots, is absolutely beautiful. During this period Spanish horror directors in general were far ahead of, say, Hammer horror. In the latter films, it is often difficult to discern between daytime and nighttime shots, but in Tombs of the Blind Dead that is never an issue. Ossorio maintains some creative set pieces away from the old monastery; for example, there’s also a wonderful scene in a mannequin factory, where one of the characters is stalked and attacked by the undead Victoria.
As with much Eurohorror from this period, Tombs of the Blind Dead relies on atmosphere, rather than gore. With that said, there is a fair amount of the red stuff, it’s just not gratuitous. Much of the violence – particularly the incredible ending – is implied, but I think this makes it far more effective. There is certainly and exploitation flavor with some scenes of nudity and sexual content – a lesbian love scene, semi-nude women being tortured by the Knights in flashback, a woman being eaten in front of her child, and… a rape. For whatever reason, there is a rape scene in every single of one these Blind Dead films and in a few other Spanish horror entries from the period. I’m guessing this has to do with the censorship issues in Spain, which lasted until 1975 and the death of director Francisco Franco. If you dislike watching rape scenes, these aren’t too graphic and are over fairly quickly. Since he kept returning to the theme, I’m still a little surprised de Ossorio didn’t make a fifth film in the series, Rape of the Blind Dead.
Of course, a professor of Medieval Studies is consulted and related the tale of the unholy Knights Templar. Ossorio does a decent job with the exposition here and the scene moves along at a decent pace thanks to some mid-story flashbacks showing the living Templars at work. The pacing does slow down, particular during the middle of the film. I’ve heard some complaints about this, which I find a little frustrating. Anyone who needs quick editing and action-packed pacing should avoid European horror (and probably European cinema) all together. And you should also grow up and learn to refine your tastes a little.
This has one of my favorite endings in all of ‘70s horror and should be seen at least once to appreciate the delightful nihilism of the final scene. The undead Knights fill a crowded, moving train and being an orgy of feeding and violence against its inhabitants. One of my other favorite things about this film is the incredible soundtrack from Antón García Abril, who also occasionally worked with Spanish horror writer/director/star Paul Naschy. It includes eerie piano sounds, groaning, chanting, and other horrific wonder. For my money, it has one of the best main themes in all of ‘70s horror.
On an interesting, final note, when Tombs of the Blind Dead was first released in the U.S., distributors changed the title and tacked on a new prologue to loosely connect it to the Planet of the Apes films. Of all the baffling distribution stories about European horror films being shown in America, I think this really takes the cake.
Tombs of the Blind Dead comes very highly recommended and is available as part of a great DVD set that comes in a coffin-shaped box. It comes with all the films in the series: Return of the Blind Dead (1973), The Ghost Galleon (1974), and Night of the Seagulls (1975). If this series isn’t enough for you, Jess Franco also made a somewhat similar film, Mansion of the Living Dead. If you are going to watch only one film in the Spanish horror canon, it should probably be Tombs of the Blind Dead. Traditional zombie fans won’t be disappointed.