TOMB OF THE BLIND DEAD, 1971
Cast: Lone Fleming, César Burner, María Elena Arpón, José Thelman, Rufino Inglés, Verónica Llimera
In medieval times, a group of renegade knights were executed for their black magic rituals. In 1970s Portugal, vacationing college kids fall prey to the knights' zombified corpses, ressurrected from the dead to feast on the blood of the living.
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To think of European horror is to consider certain names that would immediately come to mind, Mario Bava, Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci, all of who are of Italian origin and all of whose films have acquired cult following from gore-hungry cinephiles. Now, hop across the Mediterranean to Spain and it is perhaps more difficult to think of horror as a particularly Spanish genre, that is, until more recently through Mexican born Guillermo Del Toro combined horror and fantasy in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) or Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007). However, go back in time almost forty years and you may come across the name Amando de Ossorio, who in 1971 embarked on the first of the Blind Dead tetralogy. These films followed Italian conventions of horror of the time, namely exploitation mixing titillation with graphic violence.
de Ossorio ‘s first picture Tomb of the Blind Dead (1971) is an ultra-low budget movie that came at a time when the international horror market was expanding. At the time of release, Spain was under the rule of oppressive Head of State Francesco Franco (1939-75) who employed strict censorship to cultural activities in an effort to control Spain’s national identity. As Franco’s regime began to collapse Spain was in a position of social and cultural change. Democratisation saw more liberal attitudes to cinema depiction of sex and violence in a time when throughout Europe pornography was becoming mainstream through movies such as Deep Throat (1972), which became, a perhaps surprising, box office success. Tomb of the Blind Dead followed on the success of fellow Spanish filmmaker Paul Naschy’s horror flick Shadow of the Werewolf (1971), which attracted wide distribution. Tomb was filmed in Portugal to avoid Franco’s restrictions and was sold to producers based upon artwork by de Ossorio and masks intended for the movies’ antagonists, as producers worried that they wouldn’t have the saleability of established foes like vampires or werewolves.
So, who were Tomb’s evil villains? Answer, the Templar Knights, a medley of popular horror creations from the zombie, in that they are the dead resurrected, the mummy, in the way in which they destroy all who disturb them and the vampire, in that they rise nocturnally to seek victims to sustain their own existence. The Templar Knights, in fact, take their origins from history as much as literature and mythology. They were Christian warriors during the First Crusade (1118AD) whose initial purpose was to protect pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem. In 1139AD Pope Innocent II certified immunity from all but himself to the Templar who, over the twelfth and thirteenth century, attained great wealth and power throughout Europe, until in 1312AD Philippe IV of France and Pope Clement V ordered the dissolution of the order of the Knights Templar and its members were tortured and large numbers were burned at the stake. Tomb embellishes the history somewhat to suit its purpose, with the Templar returning from the Middle East with a quest for immortality via sacrificing virgins. They are then lynched, tried, condemned to death by the townsfolk who, in way of warning, hanged their bodies in public were crows pecked their eyes out. Hey presto, the Blind Dead.
The basic premise of the movie goes as such, three friends, Roger (Cesar Burner), Betty (Lone Fleming) and Virginia (Maria Elena), decide to go on a trip together. Roger is attracted to Betty and Virginia thinks “three’s a crowd” due to her past relationships with both of them. She leaps from the train and makes her way to some buildings in the distance. On arrival she finds that they are old, derelict and decaying, but having nowhere else to go, settles for the night. Enter the Templar, slowly graves begin to move, a bony hand protrudes. After the Templar’s atmospheric arrival and haunting slow-mo horse chase Virginia is slain. This begins Roger and Betty’s search for answers, they learn the legend of the Templar Knights and in due course return to their graves. The climax of the film is where it really picks up brownie points. Without saying too much, the movie ends with a twist that is both chilling and refreshingly unexpected.
The movie, like those of Lucio Fulci, relies on a number of set pieces to really carry the narrative. However, unlike Fulci, de Ossorio had neither the budget nor the expertise of established make-up and special effects artists. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop the movie having some nice moments, especially those involving the Templar, whose costumes do look very convincing and whose slow, ambling mannerism, along with the thunderous drum beat and monk chants is very effective in creating mood, which is needed to balance out the movies negative aspects, like the one dimensional characters for example, a genre staple.
For the movies’ US release Tomb was renamed Revenge from Planet Ape as distributors wanted to capitalise on the success of Planet of the Apes three years earlier based solely on the Templar’s slight resemblance to apes. In order to connect these two distinctly separate films a prologue was added to the beginning of the film. It claimed that three thousand years ago an intelligent simian civilisation lived on earth alongside man who battled for control of the planet. When man won the apes society was destroyed, ape prisoners tortured, their eyes pierced with red-hot pokers. The leader of the ape society vowed revenge proclaiming they would return from the dead to punish mankind’s ruthlessness. Of course, for this to work you would have to disregard all mention of the Templar Knights, which is simply ridiculous.
Tomb of the Blind Dead is a decent addition to the genre, but I’m afraid to say the series goes down hill from here. It was followed by Return of the Evil Dead in 1973, which was a more action packed outing for the Templar though ultimately a hollow version of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The third entry of the Blind Dead series was The Ghost Galleon in 1974, simply awful, enough said. The final chapter of de Ossorio’s collection was Night of the Seagulls (1975) a more interesting and dark story, influenced by the works of American author H.P. Lovecraft. So stick with Tomb it is a slow and eerie movie that might just surprise you.