Tombs of the Blind Dead

Be vewwwy vewwwy quiet
★★★
☆
Released: 
1971
Director: 
Amando de Ossorio
Starring: 
Lone Fleming, Cesar Burner, Maria Elena Arpon, Jose Thelman
The Setup: 
People keep venturing into area ruled by a bunch of zombie knights.
Discussion: 

As soon as I put up the review for Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, I was besieged by mail asking me if I had seen any of the Blind Dead series, which are all said to be pretty good (this first one reputed to be the best), and also find a way to goose the zombie genre to new and unexpected thrills. First we see that the DVD presents me with the option of watching one of two versions of the film, open in English, one in its native Spanish, but without telling me if there's any other difference. Are they different cuts? I'll never know. Being a purist, of course I chose to watch the Spanish one.

The credits show us creepy ruins as we hear ominous groans and suchlike. Cut to a screaming woman, then we're at this swank oceanside Euro resort. We are in Lisbon, where Bette reconnects with her high school friend Virginia. They are soon joined by Virginia's hunky friend Roger, who takes an instant liking to Bette. This is fine, we are told, because Virginia and Roger are just friends. Roger immediately invites Bette to go away with them for the weekend, which Virginia doesn't seem to be too happy about. The next day they are waiting at the station and we learn that Virginia really is not happy about Bette coming along at all.

They get on the train--boy, those Lisbon trains sure are smoky!--and Bette and Roger are flirting, which sends Virginia to the rear in a huff. She then has a flashback in which we discover that she and Bette had some steamy sapphic relations back when they were roommates and--are we to think that Virginia's problem is that she's in love with Bette? We can only guess. Anyway, they're traveling through this empty field with some ruins in the distance. Virginia asks the conductor if she can be let off, and he says "oh, don't get off here," and informs her that there's no town around for miles. So what does she do? She jumps off the train with nothing but a small bag and a sleeping bag. Smart cookie! Ladies, don't let spite egg you to do foolish things like jumping off trains in the middle of godforsaken fields with no towns around for miles. Roger and Bette see she has jumped and call to her, but she's having her huff and won't listen. The conductor once more says no way we're stopping here.

So Virginia wanders into the ruins. She runs around calling "Hello?" and looking for the nearest cafe where she might grab a quite bite before catching the train home, despite being in a RUIN. She knocks on doors and says "Is anyone home?" Ya know hon, if there are vines grown over the door, I don't think anyone is home. CONTEXTUAL CUES, sweet cheeks. She gathers a bunch of tiny twigs--despite there being numerous large pieces of WOOD lying around--and makes a fire. Then she changes into her jammies. So for her weekend in the country, she has brought: pajamas, cigarettes, a radio, and a book. Europeans pack light, what can I say. While she's chillin' with her book (note how she amusingly gives up and just flips to read the end), it would seem that the dead are stirring. The graves outside start to smoke and the gravestones wobble. Before you know it, blackened skeletal hands are reaching out.

So the Blind Dead (BDs) start lurking, while Virginia feels creepy. She opens a window panel and--hello, you've got Blind Dead! They start reaching for her in slow motion, and she runs and screams, but you know... maybe they just want to be friends. Maybe they get lonely in their graves and just want to discuss the latest Aronofsky film. Virginia doesn't make a very friendly ambassador of the living, and screams and runs, losing her not-very-sensible shoes in the process. Then--BD on horseback! So presumably those are zombie horses? Where do they board them during the day? The zombies here are in robes with shrunken skeletal faces and bony, skeletal hands, and I have to say are very creepy and a refreshing change from the old decomposing flesh zombies we're used to. Virginia runs out across the field, and into the bright sunlight? Is it afternoon outside? No, it's just low-budget Euro filmmaking of the 70s. The BDs catch her, and--oh, I guess they didn't want to be friends after all. Or maybe they did until she rejected them? They're probably pretty sensitive to their appearance, and it's not their fault that moisture-infusing facials and rejuvenating fruit-acid skin peels are not available in their area.

SPOILERS > > >
Now what I thought was one of the best things in the movie. The same train is making it's route the next day--we return to the father and son who run the train--and they spy Virginia's corpse lying in the middle of a field as they go by. She's just a speck laying there in the field, and it's quite creepy. Then we see her close up and she is covered by these fairly shallow bite marks. The BD bite you to death! That's creepy too.

Meanwhile Bette and Roger are enjoying breakfast at another Euro resort when the waitress drops her tray upon hearing that their friend got off by those ruins back there. No one will talk about the town, Berzano, and when pressed say "Oh, it's just a bunch of old legends." They rent two horses to go look for Virginia, while I'm like "Wow, so this is essentially L'Avventura, but with zombies."

So they arrive in Berzano, where their horses immediately get spooked and run off. They soon run into the police investigating the case, who takes them into town where some guy explains that Victoria was bitten by at least 14 different sets of choppers, and they seemed to enact some sort of Satanic ritual. They have to go identify the body, whereupon they meet the sadistic coroner, a totally sideline character who is just one of the charming touches this movie decided to throw in. He stands there smirking evilly, just waiting to throw the cover back so he can watch the horror on their faces when they see their mangled friend! You have to love the movie for throwing in little extra bonuses like this. So he throws the cover back! And it's some old woman. He purposely showed them some other body! I love this guy. Then he goes over, smirks wickedly at the naive couple again, and whips the cover back! This time, it's Victoria.

So that night the coroner is just hanging out, torturing his frog, when Virginia decides to get up and take a stroll. Oh but wait, before this happened, some other guy was by, looked at Virginia, and commented: "Going around flaunting themselves like that... It's as if they WANT to get bitten!" Yeah, floozies like that are just asking 14 guys to bite them to death! I know that pretty much describes MY weekend plans. Anyway, Virginia is now among the walking dead, and she decides to take a chomp out of the coroner's neck. Look at the nice lighting below that had Virginia half in shadow as she approaches him. It's little touches like that that set this movie apart.

Meanwhile Bette and Roger go the the old professor (who is a sight to see in himself), who explains the whole story. It would seem that there was this set of knights who traveled through Egypt, where they picked up the secret of eternal life. I've seen the secret of eternal life in pamphlets left around the subway. They came back to Berzano, where they procured a virgin and did some ritual where they tied her up and rode by her on horseback, slicing at her with their swords. The whole sequence is edited poorly, as they don't really seem to cut her, except in some notable sequences in which they slice open her breast. Wouldn't be Spanish horror without a little sexual mutilation, would it? Then art historians will be amused to see a bunch of faux-Romanesque painting describing how the town was destroyed, but the Knights lived forever, blah, blah.

Meanwhile we have met another peripheral character in Bette's assistant at her mannequin shop. You know how those Spaniards and Italians just can't get enough of setting horror scenes among a bunch of mannequins. Bette goes home, and who should come to call but Virginia, who wouldn't mind a little snack. The assistant runs and tries to escape, but geez, sometimes those simple latches that require you to only twist a bar and pull it back--such as can be found on any number of restroom stalls--are SO hard to work! In fact, you could easily spend like two panicked minutes trying to work that complex machinery as a zombie slowly advances on you! The assistant finally just gives up, and soon we discover that in this movie, as in so many others, zombies turn out to be intensely flammable!

Meanwhile, Roger has decided that he just HAS to get back to Berzano and have a STRONG word with those zombies, and Bette insists on going with him. So they go to this small fishing village, where we are introduced to Pedro and his moll, whose name I never got. He is involved in porking her when he is called away. As he dresses, they discuss how he has another girlfriend, but the Moll will take whatever she can get. She's quite brazen and likes to smoke his cigar. As we will soon learn, she seems to be incapable of seeing anything but in terms of sex.

So Pedro and Roger are going to Berzano. Bette insists on coming, and then so does the Moll--even though she is supposedly familiar with the legends. They go, they stay the night, and at one point Bette decides to take a little moonlight stroll. Pedro goes out to join her. The Moll starts in after Roger, about how Bette is out there because she's insane with lust for Pedro, and Roger must be dying to make out with her, and if he's not, why, what's wrong with him? She follows him around, nagging like a harpy, and manages to be quite, quite annoying in just her short time on screen. Meanwhile, Bette is making quite, quite clear that she does NOT want to have sex with Pedro. So he rapes her. And we watch it. Then, afterward, he offers her a smoke, and when she refuses, because she has just be violently traumatized and very much seems like it. He's like "Eh, can't please everyone."

Well, I'm sure you've guessed that our friendly knights are going to rise from their graves and--geez, HOW did you know? They do--it may actually be the same footage from the beginning--and Pedro does the old trick, which really makes you think a character is SMART, in which they just stand gaping in disbelief as the zombies gather around him, although he clearly would have had time to escape them had he simply run. Pedro adds to the charm of this with his visibly sweaty armpits. Soon enough he's chomped by ye undeade knights.

So Roger ends up outside, and sees the trouble they're in. The Moll, who STILL can think of nothing but sex, sees Bette's torn clothes and is giving her some sass about how she "just couldn't wait," or whatnot. Roger starts pounding on the door, and Bette has a LOT of trouble getting the latch off. This one is one where she need merely lift it UP, as any child who looked at it would be able to decipher, but that seems to be beyond her abilities. Then the Moll attacks her, so as not to let Roger (and the zombies) in, leading to the inevitable CATFIGHT. Can't have two women in a movie without a catfight, can you? So they roll around for awhile, while the knights are advancing on Roger outside and--suddenly cut off his arm! THAT was a bit of a shocker. Meanwhile, the two women inside are still fighting. Roger gets let in, but it's too late. And the other zombies make short work of the Moll.

Meanwhile, Bette has figured out that the zombies are blind, so maybe she should be vewwy, vewwy quiet. She runs outside, whereupon she twists her ankle, but it doesn't seem that bad, and she's still able to fun. Again we have cause to note that these women do NOT wear sensible shoes that allow for quick bursts of speed in case of eventual zombie attack. Bette makes it near the train, whereupon the son stops the train and gets off to help her. At this point Bette inexplicably loses all ability to walk. She is being DRAGGED along, not trying to help at all, unable to hold onto the train when she finally gets to it, and frankly she was really annoying me. Look lady, these guys are risking their lives to help you--think you could lift a finger here?

The son gets killed. The father gets killed. The knights gets on the train and slaughter all the passengers! And it's ALL BETTE'S FAULT. She, meanwhile, is sitting pretty atop the coal while the train inexplicably starts for no reason and pulls into the next town. There we see that the woman screaming at the beginning of the movie was Bette, and new passengers go into the train and we hear screaming, which I couldn't tell meant that they're upset at all the dead people (okay) or the knights were still on board and are slaughtering all the NEW people (better). Anyway, it's over.
< < < SPOILERS END

It was quite good, but I still prefer Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. This one distinguishes itself with little touches like the sadistic coroner or the slow-motion knights on horseback, stuff like that it didn't have to include, but went out of it's way to give us a little extra. And the knights are genuinely creepy, and it's nice to see zombies for once that are skinny and skeletal, and don't necessarily want to eat you, just want to bite you to death because they're bastards. And this movie simply has a lot of creepy, unnerving scenes and images, like the one I mentioned of the corpse lying in the distant field.

But there's something a little ugly about this film in the way it regards it's characters. The characters in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie were idiots, sure, but they weren't hateful. And the movie itself didn't hate them. Of course there's a long tradition in horror of the point of view of the film hating its characters, like in Hostel, but here the film invites US to hate them with a gusto that turns a little disturbing.

I don't have the interest to work it all out, but there's some subtext here about women being such sluts that they invite the torture and rape that happens to them, and invites us the audience to hate them, too. The women here are presented as floozies who can think of little but sex, and are contemptible idiots when not. Jumping off a train in an abandoned area where she has been warned not to. Knocking on doors with vines grown over them asking if anyone is home. Being unable to work a simple latch. Being unable to unblock a door any child could see how to work. Being unable to grasp the seriousness of an attack because she is so caught up in who wants to sleep with who. Purposely leaving a character outside to die because she doesn't want to put herself in danger. And finally Bette becoming suddenly unable to walk or help herself, directly resulting in the deaths of the father and son who tried to help her, and everyone on the train, and possibly bringing the satanic knights out of their quarantined place and into the rest of the world. These women are presented in such a way that they cross the line from simple horror movie idiots to truly contemptible beings. Add to this the character remarking that the women deserve what happens to them because of the way they dress, and Pedro's rape of Bette being treated as simply what a woman can expect, and need to put up with, and you start to sense that the point of view of the movie is that women are stupid animals who are unable to use their brains for anything but getting laid, and are ultimately selfish and narcissistic. The kicker is that the knights, all men, gather around the female victims and bite them to death, quite a sexualized death. And we haven't even mentioned the shots of the knights cutting a woman's breast with their swords, then drinking blood from that wound. Yes, its Spanish and this may just reflect cultural differences of the place and time, but it goes further than other movies of the type and as far as I'm concerned, crosses the line.

So yes, it has good thrills and spooky chills, but there's something relentlessly ugly about it that keeps me from fully endorsing it. In fact, I felt a little gross after watching it, particularly because it invites YOU, the viewer, to despise these women as much as the movie does. Worth watching, sure, but you might need to take a shower afterward.

Should you watch it: 

It's a good spooky movie, but it's also a bit distasteful.