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Tombs of the Blind Dead

by Glenn Erickson Oct 10, 2023

The skeletal claws of the DEAD reach out at us from Franco-era Spanish horror, where cruelty and oppression seem built into every violent fantasy. Amando de Ossorio hit pay dirt with this fright show that ignited a mini-franchise: a curse from the past looses the ghoulish remains of evil Knights Templar, eyeless zombies that ride slow-motion ghost horses, and locate their prey by sound. Who do they pursue? Twenty-something sexually-active señoritas, preferably in hot pants. The extras are abundante on this lavish two-disc presentation.


Tombs of the Blind Dead
Blu-ray
Synapse Films
1972 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 101 + 83 min. / La noche del terror ciego; Crypt of the Blind Dead; Night of the Blind Dead; The Blind Dead / Street Date October 24 2023 / Available from Synapse Films / 39.95;
Starring: Lone Fleming, César Burner, María Elena Arpón (Helen Harp), José Thelman (Joseph Thelman), María Silva, Rufino Inglés, Verónica Llimeráa, Simón Arriaga, Francisco Sanz, Juan Cortés, Andrés Isbert, Antonio Orengo, Carmen Yazalde.
Cinematography: Pablo Ripoli
Production Designer: Jaime Duarte De Brito
Special Effects: José Gómez Soria
Costume Design:
Film Editor: José Antonio Rojo
Original Music: Antón García Abril
Additional dialogue by Jesús Navarro Carrión
Produced by Salvadore Romero
Written and Directed by
Amando de Ossorio

Spain’s film industry was tightly regulated under Franco, leaving only a few filmmakers to bring light to the country in foreign film festivals —  Carlos Saura,  Juan Antonio Bardem,  Luis García Berlanga.

The 1960s changed all of that when Spain encouraged foreign investment and offered up the entire country for film production. The epics of American producer Samuel Bronston kick-started a new industry center, and both England and Spain discovered Southern Spain as a welcoming location for the filming of westerns.

Home-grown production grew as Spanish companies were allowed to make international deals. Horror films had been discouraged by the Spanish censors, but more extreme content was acceptable for export. One of the first Spanish filmmakers to make a name in horror was Amando de Ossorio. His first attempt taught a lesson in commercial realities. Malenka was a psychological story about a woman who inherits a title and a castle — relatives try to drive her mad by convincing her that she’s a vampire. For export, the producers added scenes with real vampire activity, even though it made nonsense of the rest of the narrative.

 

De Ossorio directed a number of successful pictures, but his biggest success was his ‘blind dead’ series that began in with 1972’s La noche de terror ciego, released here in abridged form as Tombs of the Blind Dead. This time de Ossorio built his story around the desires of the market. Terror Ciego is said to be the first film to follow up on the premise of George Romero’s game-changing 1968 picture Night of the Living Dead, with its mass zombie attacks. De Ossorio’s zombies have ‘local flavor,’ as they are motivated by a curse from the past. A cult of Devil-worshipping (?) Knights Templar attained living-dead status by drinking the blood of virgins. The cultists were captured and blinded before being put to death; now they rise from their tombs whenever potential victims draw near.

De Ossorio’s story is no gem — his main characters are insipid 20-somethings that hang around tourist destinations looking to hook up. Gorgeous Virginia (María Elena Arpón) is going on a romantic (?) train excursion to the Portuguese seashore with the handsome Roger (César Burner). When they bump into her old college roommate Betty Turner (Lone Fleming), Roger invites her along too. Jealousy prompts Virginia to leave the train in the middle of nowhere. She takes shelter in some medieval ruins in the abandoned town of Berzano.

 

The locals treat Berzano as forbidden territory — the train engineer refuses to stop in the district, even in broad daylight. Roger and Betty must rent horses the next day to look for Virginia. After discovering a horrible crime, they learn more about the ghastly Templarios from the unhappy Professor Candal (Francisco Sanz). They follow Candal’s suggestion to investigate the Berzano ruins with the aid of a local smuggler, Pedro Candal (José Thelman). Pedro’s shifty girlfriend Nina (Verónica Llimeráa) takes one look at Betty and insists on coming along. With all that fresh blood afoot, the Berzano ghouls will have a feast.

Tombs of the Blind Dead has a reasonably good reputation, formed back at the dawn of DVD, when early adopters (many of them college-age males) became enthused by the wealth of violent and sexy European horror suddenly available on home video. Writer-director de Ossorio sticks to a reliable monsters-on-the-prowl formula. The build-up is poky but the show’s last twenty minutes become a drawn-out zombie assault. De Ossorio wisely tailored his script to what his backers could afford. His production value makes use of one small-gauge rail line, and an atmospheric ruined hacienda.

 

The visualization of the ‘Blind Dead’ apparently struck a chord, and one that’s politically conservative. Those rascally Knights Templar brought back an Egyptian ‘ankh’ symbol, suggesting that the root of Evil starts with a consideration of things foreign, especially heretical theology: if the Pope didn’t say it or do it, it’s the work of The Devil. The ghouls themselves look great — rot-stiffened hooded cloaks cover their skeletal bodies; their skull faces have no eyes. It’s standard Death Warmed Over material, that comes across well in stills, and in cameraman Pablo Ripoli’s good cinematography.

The Knights find their prey by sound, which draws them to screams and gunshots. One effective moment shows Betty staying perfectly quiet, only to realize that her own heartbeat is all the phantoms need to fixate on her location. Also impressive are visuals of the assembled knights riding on horseback, like the Swamp Phantoms of the English and American Doctor Syn movies. De Ossorio films the riding in slow-motion, which is fairly effective in better-looking night-for-night shots, as in spooky scenes in films by both Mario Bava and Walt Disney.

Do the phantom horses work as well as they could. There’s nothing skeletal or ghost-like about the handsome horses — horses in Spanish movies are the definition of robust strength and good health. These mightycaballos go against the theme of death and morbidity — an effect comparable to Hammer Films’ bosomy, well-nourished vampire babes.

De Ossorio puts a lot of effort into the final nighttime attack by tooth and sword. The humans don’t stand a chance, thanks to some (thematically consistent) female perfidy. The slow-moving excursion train offers a possible escape . . . . but with nihilism the going thing in ’70s horror we fear that few if any will be alive at the finish.

The critics of the Hardy/Overlook Encyclopedia of Horror responded favorably to Tombs of the Blind, without dunning it with charges of sexist misogyny. Yet the situations are Franco-repressed in every way. The ‘thrill’ of taboo content is balanced with a patriarchal disapproval of sexual liberation. It’s not enough that Virginia and Betty politely compete for the favors of the smugly masculine Roger — the issue is confused with their mutual attraction back in college, you know, the kind of residencia where roommates sleep in seductive nightgowns. Forbidden content like that presumably makes some in the audience feel guilty-vulnerable, with an unseen cause/effect relationship at work — the victims are being punished for their sins, and the audience both ‘punished’ and titillated.

 

Betty and Virginia’s school experimentation flashback is softened with a gauzy look, but otherwise the film’s cinematography isn’t stylized in any particular fashion. De Ossorio instead restricts the action to creepy settings, as when a corpse on a morgue slab returns to life as a zombie. Even the corpse has been given a modesty ‘bikini’ shroud. Also suggesting a sideways emphasis on sex, Betty is shown at work in a mannequin factory. Is it the filmmakers’ idea that all those nude plastic dummies will exite viewers?

The other flashback illustrates Professor Candal’s long-winded historical backstory. Little about the Templars is known — except for Candal’s explicit step-by-step explanation of their nightly activities. The flashback shows the ancient Knights sacrificing a virgin in a blood ritual, slashing her breasts with swords and then converging to bite her flesh and suck her blood. This ghoulish substitute for a gang rape explains the multiple bites and wounds on a modern victim. It’s the film’s most exploitatively misogynistic scene: attractive women are vessels of sin and deserving of punishment.

 

So … are the zombie Knights hiding a Maltese Falcon somewhere?

What do historical Knights Templar have to do with zombies, or the Devil?  Um, could they be an expedient excuse to let loose some fast-munching, slow-motion blood suckers on a few photogenically alluring Spanish maidens?  De Ossorio’s zombie knights must resonate with European notions of bogeymen, as the hardworking director’s ‘Blind Dead’ franchise extended to three sequels. His other genre efforts were hit and miss, although both Las garras de Lorelei and the exorcism tale La endemoniada have their adherents.

Long before DVD, we had at least heard of a number of Spanish Eurohorror pix through the old magazine Cinefantastique. De Ossorio’s Terror Ciego opus came right after the first  Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia, begun in 1971. The festival seems to have encouraged Spanish horror films, even if most of the awards went to familiar titles from America and other European countries: Mulligan’s  The Other, Hrusinsky’s  The Cremator,  Cronenberg’s Shivers. Did the critics think much of the local output overall?  The only Spanish-won major award in the first couple of years appears to be for Christina Galbó in the excellent  No profanar el sueño de los muertos.

 


 

Synapse Films’ Blu-ray of Tombs of the Blind Dead is billed as a new restoration from the original negative. It may be four minutes longer than an earlier disc presentation clocked by the reliable & authoritative page Mondo Digital. On this viewing, we responded positively to the main zombie attack, when director de Ossorio lets loose with multiple angles of creepy Templars dismounting, drawing swords, and zeroing in on their prey.

Although it lists the release as a Standard Edition, Synapse’s presentation is incredibly thorough. The film can be seen in pristine, perfect condition in its full-length Spanish version. If one prefers the heavily edited American version The Blind Dead that is also present in a quality scan, awful English dubbing included. Synapse even adds a hybrid presentation by overdubbing the English track onto the longer Spanish version, reverting to Spanish with English subs when necessary.

Forget overall critical appraisals of Spanish horror films, as Synapse’s exhaustive extras link up to promote Terror Ciego as a key part of Horror heritage. We hear from the usual genre suspects (Troy Howarth, John Martin, Calum Waddell, Kim Newman, Steve Jones) as well as personages from El Siglo de Horror Español: Helga Linée, Jack Taylor, Jorge Grau. Actress Lone Fleming has a commentary to herself. One of the sprawling documentaries is feature-length.

In addition to a music video, the extras include a weird prologue reportedly designed to posit Terror Ciego as part of the Planet of the Apes series: “Revenge of Planet Ape.”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Tombs of the Blind Dead
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good + / –
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
DISC 1: Original Spanish version with optional hybrid audio track version.
Audio commentary with horror film historian and author Troy Howarth
Audio commentary with star Lone Fleming
Audio commentary with podcasters Rod Barnett & Troy Guinn
Feature-length documentary Marauders from the Mediterranean with interviews with writer/producer John Russo, Sitges Film Festival deputy director Mike Hostench, film critic John Martin, academic Calum Waddell, director Jorge Grau, actors Lone Fleming, Helga Liné, Manuel de Blas, Antonio Mayans and Jack Taylor, Sergio Molina, plus Kim Newman and Steve Jones
Alternate U.S. opening sequence for Revenge of Planet Ape
Featurette Awakening of Spanish Horror Cinema
Salem’s Pop Templar’s Tears music video
Original theatrical trailer
Still gallery
DISC 2: U.S. version The Blind Dead.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles:
English subs for the Spanish track
English subs for the Spanish sections of the hybrid soundtrack
English subs for the deaf and hard of hearing for all of the hybrid soundtrack
English subs for the second U.S. The Blind Dead version.
English subs for the second U.S. The Blind Dead version.
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
October 9, 2023
(7006blind)
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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cadavra

Fun anecdote: Back in my theatre booking days, we all went to a screening of “Revenge From Planet Ape.” After the prologue, the scene was a hotel swimming pool. Me being me, I spoke up, “Hey, that’s the same pool they used in ‘Tomb [sic] of the Blind Dead.'” The local distrib replied, “Yes, this IS ‘Tomb of the Blind Dead.'” We all shouted “WHAT???” and were out of there in record time, not wishing to sit through that POS again!

Holden

Man, these movies were in the late 80s/early 90s so often on TV here in Germany (Known as THE ______ OF THE RIDING DEAD), but then they kinda disappeared. Totally forgot about them to be honest. If this box makes it to my part of the world I miiiiiight purchase it for nostalgia reasons, but I doubt that 40+year old me will be as scared as elementary school me.

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