EZMM Day 3: Return of the Blind Dead (1973)

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 2008, 2009 (a bad year), 2010, 2011, 2012 (when we left the blog behind), 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Writer/Director Amando de Ossorio’s second venture into the world of undead Templars is kind of like what Sam Raimi did with Evil Dead 2. With demand for a sequel and an obviously larger budget, Ossorio went back to the drawing board and reworked his original idea of undead Knights Templar, revising their origins and telling a larger story about their awakening. Return of the Blind Dead (or Return of the Evil Dead, or Attack of the Eyeless Dead) is both a step up from the original and, if not a step back, a step to the side in terms of quality.

The film opens with a flashback to 13th century Bouzano, Portugal, where the Eastern Knights have been captured by the locals, who are preparing to burn them as witches. The lead knight (Luis Barboo) curses the town, vowing to return from the dead to raze the village. So, the townsfolk do what any townsfolk would do. They burn out the knights’ eyes so if they do return, they won’t be able to find Bouzano.

They probably should have burned off their ears, too, but to be fair, “The Blind and Deaf Dead” doesn’t sound as dramatic as “The Blind Dead.”

Cut to modern day Bouzano, where the townsfolk are readying for the 500th anniversary of the burning of the Templars. So, within the first five minutes of the film, we’ve got a different source for the blindness of the dead, and a different city that isn’t located in an abandoned field, but with what appears to be the same cemetery as the first film.

I’m not a stickler for strict continuity in my horror films, so this isn’t really a problem for me. There’s honestly not a lot that can be done narratively with an abandoned medieval village in the middle of nowhere that none of the locals will talk about. Tombs of the Blind Dead pretty much wrung as much story as it could from that initial idea. If Ossorio was going to make a sequel, he almost had to rethink some things.

Stylistically, Return of the Blind Dead is just as, if not more gorgeous than the first film. The script is more nuanced, and the actors are more professional. There’s a political element to this film that wasn’t in Tombs, but that film didn’t really have narrative space for a larger worldview.

Basically, we have another love triangle at the heart of Return, but it’s more grown up, if you will. The Mayor’s fiancée Vivian (Esperanza Roy) has suggested that the Mayor (Fernando Sancho) hire former military captain and current fireworks technician Jack Marlowe (Tony Kendall) to orchestrate the celebration’s fireworks display. Turns out, she and Jack have a history, and luckily for her, Jack is still as interested in her as she is in him. So, they plan to skip town during the celebration to live the life of a traveling fireworks technician, or something.

But what nobody realizes is that the village idiot, Murdo (Jose Canalejas) wants to wake up the Templars to destroy the town that has tormented him. To do so, he casually murders an unnamed woman he’s kidnapped (and nobody is looking for, apparently), allowing her blood sacrifice to wake the dead.

This is another way that Return of the Blind Dead improves on the original concept of Tombs. Where the first film seemed to imply that just invading the ruins of Berzano was enough to summon the Templars, here we get a good old-fashioned ritualistic killing to crack open the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead.

The titular return of the Blind Dead reuses some footage from the first film as the knights crawl from their tombs, but that’s the only real cost-cutting effort I noticed. In fact, it looks like additional budget was devoted to the gore, which isn’t plentiful, but when it shows up, you take notice. This is particularly effective in a flashback that restages the Templar’s blood sacrifice from the first film. This time out, instead of some light cuts, blood, and hooded knights swarming the half-naked lady tied to a massive wooden X, we get actual knife penetrations, chunks of flesh carved out, and a visceral and violent removal of a heart.

Of course, the heart is then eaten. Why waste a good prop heart?

From this point on, the Templars are up and running, with a theme that sounds eerily like the opening reverb notes of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (was this an inspiration?) and the town of Bouzano is going to pay the price for burning them five hundred years earlier. The personal drama of Jack and Vivian trying to get away from the Mayor takes a backseat (for the moment) as the knights arrive at the height of the celebration, herd all of the townsfolk into the central square, and then literally just start hacking them to death from horseback with their ancient-ass swords.

The zombie effects are pretty much on par with Tombs, sticking to a mix of people in costumes with dessicated corpse masks (with hair and beards despite having been burned to death), and spindly puppet skeleton hands creepily reaching out from around corners and through windows. We even get a shadowy undead horse head this time!

This allows Ossorio to slip a little political criticism into the mix, as the Mayor is selfish and useless, allowing the citizenry to be slaughtered while he gathers up his money and belongings and trys to escape himself. And if that weren’t enough, the lecherous Governor is even more useless, refusing to believe that there’s any threat, distracted by his sexy mistress.

Return of the Blind Dead then turns into something more akin to Night of the Living Dead, as our survivors find refuge in the village church while the dead gather outside. This allows for the resurgence of the personal drama, and I think you probably already know that none of that shit works out.

We do get a return of the rape scenario, though, for those of you who need a head’s up about that sort of thing. It’s not as out of the blue and unpunished as in Tombs, so I guess that’s an improvement? At least this time, the would-be rapist is presented as a piece of shit doing a horrible thing for which he is actually punished.

The finale of the film throws one more change into the mix from what we saw in Tombs. Apparently, the blind dead in this film have a problem with sunlight? Whereas the original knights were riding around in daylight, murdering a train full of people, this lot just kind of wither up and collapse as the sun rises. It’s extremely anticlimactic and felt almost like Ossorio just wrote himself into a corner and opted for the easy out.

That said, Return of the Blind Dead is a marked improvement over the first film, despite Tombs being a solid entry in the genre. There’s a lot of good stuff here and more than once I found myself wondering if this was a formative film for contemporary Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia (Day of the Beast, Perdita Durango, The Last Circus, Witching & Bitching, 30 Coins). If there was ever a writer/director born to do a Blind Dead remake, Iglesia is the man for the job.

And you don’t really need to see the first film to get everything that happens here. Given how expensive Tombs is on DVD, I wouldn’t fault you for jumping straight to Return, since this Blue Underground release is readily available and affordable. I mean, under ten bucks? That’s a steal for what truly is a zombie cinema classic.

Of course, it’s also included on that Anchor Bay DVD release with Tombs, so that’s not a terrible investment either.

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