It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before, and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born.

For the curious, here are links to 20082009 (a bad year), 201020112012 (when we left the blog behind), 201320142015201620172018, 2019, and 2020.

One of the things Dr. Girlfriend and I wanted to do this year was fill in some gaps in our zombie cinema experience, and one of the most embarrassing holes that needed plugging was Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead tetralogy. These are films I’ve heard about for decades, but somehow just never got around to watching.

Well, tonight, that changed.

Filmed in Spain and Portugal, and released in 1972, the first film of the series, Tombs of the Blind Dead featured the first appearance of the iconic Dead Templars (although they are never called Templars in the film). Ossorio, while claiming to be inspired by Night of the Living Dead, objected to the “Knights from the East” being called zombies. He preferred to think of them as blood-drinking mummies.

And I can see that. But we’re still watching and reviewing the series for the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon.

Tombs of the Blind Dead exists in a couple of different cuts. We’ll be talking about the one hour and forty-one-minute, subtitled release.

After opening with a startling shot of a white-haired woman screaming, we immediately cut to poolside at a resort hotel and are introduced to our three main characters, Virginia White (María Elena Arpón), Betty Turner (Lone Fleming), and Roger Whelan (César Burner). Virginia and Betty have a secret romantic past, but Virginia now has the hots for Roger. Unfortunately, after introducing him to Betty, he only has eyes for her and invites her to join them on a camping trip. Virginia is not happy.

I have to admit, I wasn’t into the opening. The acting isn’t great and it didn’t really have me champing at the bit to see what happened next. But then Virginia hops off the slow-moving train they are taking and decides to hang out in an old, abandoned medieval town, putting her camping skills to good use. The cinematography is moody and kind of gorgeous, and as the sun sets, the tension begins to build nicely.  

When the dead begin to rise, they’re like no undead I’ve seen before. Rather than your traditional (even for 1972) undead make-up effects, Ossorio instead opts for hooded figures with realistic, withered mummy-like skull face masks (with nasty beards and hair included) and skeletal puppet hands. They are extremely slow, moving with a dreamlike quality that drips with inevitability. Of course, they speed up a bit once they’re on horseback.

You heard me. Zombies riding horses. Take that, zombie fighting a shark!

Virginia almost gets away, but the next day her corpse is discovered in a field by the train tracks, covered in bite wounds.

After the slow open, Tombs of the Blind Dead won me over pretty quickly. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film is that once Betty and Roger find out Virginia’s dead, the films shifts gears and practically becomes a giallo. The narrative takes on more of an investigative tone, we meet a creepy mortician (Juan Cortés) and his even creepier assistant (Simón Arriaga), and get a neon-colored segment at Betty’s workplace, where she makes mannikins for shop windows.

If flashing red lights over rows of limbless mannikin torsos isn’t giallo, I don’t know what is.

The couple investigates the history of the area and thanks to creepy Professor Candal (Francisco Sanz), discover that the abandoned ruins of Berzano was the site of the killing of a group of Knights Templar – they were hung after being charged with witchcraft and crows pecked out their eyes. According to legend, the blind knights sometimes rise from the dead and feed on the blood of those who enter their city.  

Along the way, Virginia returns from the slab and starts her own murder rampage that isn’t really dealt with in-film but provides a traditional murder-in-the-morgue-by-a-zombie scene and another nice giallo-style near-kill.

Meanwhile, The Police believe that Candal’s son, a smuggler based near Berzano, is responsible for Virginia’s murder as a way of scaring off tourists and locals who might interfere with their business, so Roger and Betty seek him out.

The smugglers are sleazy, sex-obsessed criminals, living in a riverside camp. Pedro Candal (José Thelman) the hyper-masculine leader of the group, and his main squeeze, the sexually overcharged Nina (Verónica Llimerá) deny involvement with the murder but agree to go to Berzano with the pair to prove that the undead knights are real.

This leads to the shocking rape of Betty by Pedro while Nina distracts Roger by practically trying to rape him as well.

It’s a horrifying moment that is actually more unnerving than the zombies and undercuts the goodwill the film had built up to that point. Betty pleading that she doesn’t like men, makes it even more smutty, while simultaneously situating her as the final girl. Because the dead do rise, as expected, and methodically hunt down and murder everyone else.

A shell-shocked Betty staggers to the train tracks and when the train stops to help her, the blind dead kill everyone else on the train, sending it on its way, conductorless. Betty, now white-haired, hides behind the coal stores, and when the train pulls into the station and the bodies are discovered, screams into the camera.

The same shot we opened with.

It’s an artful and well-paced film that looks great (if you can find a remastered copy) but leans a bit too heavily into misogyny to reach its climax. The zombies look great and are extremely nightmare-inducing. So, while this is understandably a classic of the genre, it’s also a bit distasteful as the rape doesn’t add anything to the plot and doesn’t even create a sense of justified satisfaction as Pedro is eaten. He’s just one death alongside the many innocent people who die by the hands, and teeth, of the Templars.

There’s no sense of justice or revenge, which makes the film all the more unsettling.

There’s just a traumatized lesbian left screaming, helpless and possibly insane.

By the way, if at all possible, avoid the English-dubbed release, which is missing around fifteen minutes of film. At the moment Blue Underground holds the rights to the film and the only uncut, subtitled version I’ve been able to find has been out of print for a while now and is only in DVD format. You can find it, but it’ll cost ya.

The movie’s good, but I don’t know if it’s forty dollars plus good.

There’s also an Anchor Bay DVD release that features a slightly different cut but maintains the original runtime. It’s a two-sided disc with Tombs on one side and the first sequel, Return of the Blind Dead, on the other. It’s more affordable, but still runs around thirty bucks.

It’s also streaming on YouTube, but it’s not high quality.  

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