I recently watched three foreign zombie flicks from the 1970s. Each was produced in a different country from the others. Each took the zombie paradigm in a separate direction, building the mythos in the wake of Romero’s watershed living dead film. The most radical take was Amando de Ossorio’s Spanish production, Tombs of the Blind Dead.
Horror directors often forget that building tension is crucial to terrifying an audience. Fortunately, de Ossorio creates it from the film’s opening scene, long before any zombies show up. Bet bumps into her old friend Virginia at a resort pool. The two old college roommates catch up on old times, and then Virginia’s new boyfriend Roger joins them. He clearly flirts with Bet; even though Virginia says the relationship is casual, she’s obviously upset and frustrated when Roger invites Bet to join them on a weekend getaway. On the train, Roger puts the moves on Bet right in front of Virginia. Bet tries to console her, but things get complicated when, via a flashback, it becomes obvious that Virginia and Bet had a sexual tryst during college. Even here, de Ossorio ratchets up the tension; as Bet tries to seduce Virginia in the flashback, a crucifix and picture of Jesus hang on the wall behind them. These good Catholic girls are committing sin right under the eyes of the Lord. Overwhelmed with conflicting feelings, Virginia leaps off the still moving train. de Ossorio takes the playful pool scene and the train ride and turns them into scenes of tension. This tension sets the pace as Virginia arrives at the old, deserted castle that acts as the burial ground for the Knights Templar, the blind dead of the title.
The Blind Dead are, hands down, the best looking zombies I’ve ever seen. These hooded, skeletal corpses with wisps of beard are merciless hunters. Some of them ride horseback. They move at a snail’s pace, but de Ossorio uses this to his advantage; many of their scenes take place in slow motion, as if the whole world has slowed down, making escape impossible. Oh, and watch the scene where a number of them chase Virginia on horseback, and try to tell me Peter Jackson didn’t borrow that scene for Fellowship of the Ring. Their back story makes them even more compelling. These are not the neighbors, as in so many zombie movies; they are a group of medieval warriors, punished for their sins against the church, and now returning to dispense punishment in Satan’s name.
The first and third acts of The Blind Dead involve the zombies and their ruined castle. Unfortunately, the second act stalls because it takes things back to civilization. The best scene in the middle act is a zombie attack at Bet’s place of work, a factory full of mannequins. The mannequin is an excellent analogy for the zombie; a likeness of a human body which appears to be living, yet is dead inside. But even this scene draws the audience far from the Blind Dead. de Ossorio throws in some unnecessary extra characters in the third act, but at least the film returns to its wickedly compelling zombies.
The extras on this film are an odd mix. There are a trailer and stills gallery. Then there’s an alternate opening with a speech that tries to tie the film to Planet of the Apes! (to which I say, What the HELL?) And then there’s what I consider an extra: the English version of the movie. Heavily edited for violence, shortened and with some of its scenes reconfigured, this version is terrible and barely watchable. Stick to the Spanish language version and subtitles.
Tombs of the Blind Dead takes some of the elements that Romero laid down and puts some new twists on them. The first and third acts have some truly creepy stuff in them, and again, coolest zombies ever. The end of the film should leave you scared and asking the question: What will happen if the Blind Dead ever escape their tombs? Highly recommended.