JULY 7 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD
REVIEWED BY STEVE BIODROWSKI AT HOLLYWOODGOTHIQUE.COM
This is the first of four "Blind Dead" movies from the 1970s -- basically European zombie movies, written and directed by Amando de Ossorio in the wake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but with their own unique twist: the walking dead are members of the Knights Templar who were executed for practicing black magic, and when they come back from the grave, they cannot see. (The reason for this changes from film to film: in this instance, the eyes of the executed Templars were pecked out by birds while their bodies hung on the gallows.) All four films are worth seeing, but this film and its first sequel RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD (a.k.a., "Return of the Blind Dead") pretty much exhaust the possibilities, leaving the second pair to rehash familiar material in new settings.
TOMB OF THE BLIND DEAD introduces us to the Templars (although the word itself is never used, the character instead calling them "Knights from the East"). The film is classic Euro-trash horror cinema: almost plotless, the story serves as an excuse to serve up the horror, and gratuitous exploitation element are thrown in to keep viewers from getting bored in between the zombie scenes (for example, there's a softcore lesbian flashback in the first act and a brutal rape in the last act). Roger and Virginia, a couple on vacation, meet an old girlfriend named Betty (who seduced Virginia back in their school days), and Roger (against Virginia’s wishes) invites Betty to join them for a take a train ride; fleeing from the awkward situation, Virginia takes refuge in a castle where the Templars rise from the grave and kill her. Her friends try to find out what happened, rather unwisely enlisting the help of a local smuggler named Pedro (who wants to clear himself from being blamed for the death), and they too run afoul of the Templars. The sole survivor runs for the train tracks, where a foolish young engineer stops the train against his father's orders. In one of the most incredibly botched rescue attempts in screen history, this allows the Templars to climb on board and kill all the passengers, before the train heads into town, leaving us to imagine them rampaging through the modern populace.
The pacing is, frankly slack, thanks to the fact that the story is spread over a wide swath of geography that makes it feel as if half the running time is spent traveling to and from the Templars' tomb, which is located miles from civilization. The Templars themselves are given little screen time: there is one extended flashback where we see them alive centuries ago, and they only rise from their graves twice, once near the beginning of the film, once near the end. To make up for this absence of the star monsters in the middle section, Virginia comes back to live in the morgue and attacks a couple of people before being burned to cinders in a mannequin warehouse. The sequence is well-done (complete with Mario Bava-style flashing red lighting), but it feels out of place: it's the only time in the series that one of the Templars' victims becomes a zombie, but the Templars are not supposed to be zombies -- they're supposed to be mummified corpses brought back to life by the power of Satan, fueled by their blood sacrifices.
As a director, DeOssorio pulls off several good scenes, showing a reasonable sense of style on an obviously limited budget. Even the lesbian sequence has some clever touches: Virginia and Betty are aboard a train as they reminisce, and the smoke from the train (along with the sound effects of the wheels on the tracks) impinge on the flashback footage, making it less of a jump back in time and more of a shared memory.
The use of actual locations (especially for the titular "tomb") provides some great atmosphere, and the undead Templars themselves are a memorable menace: desiccated corpses that look more like mummies than zombies. They definitely fall into the category of slow-moving movie monsters, but at least in this case the situation makes a kind of sense: the Templars are blind, so they can't move fast, and their victims are to some extent forced to move slow in order to avoid making noise that will allow the Templars to track them by ear. On the occasions when the humans do make a run for it, the Templars mount ghostly stallions and race across the land in slow-motion (a truly spooky effect that DeOssorio rationalized by claiming the Templars existed outside the normal "space-time continuum").
The films were quite graphic by the standards of the early 1970s, although some of the prosthetic effects look a bit rubbery in close-up. The pointlessly sadistic virgin sacrifice flashback features the Templars riding past their trussed up victim and flicking their swords at her, cutting deep into her exposed breasts. The rape scene is tasteless, and Ossorio manages to get his female cast members to disrobe at regular intervals. But the film somehow manages to establish itself on its own terms as an effective if exploitative piece of horror cinema.
TOMB OF THE BLIND DEAD was recut to earn a PG-rating during its initial release in drive-in theatres (and later on home video). The flashback showing the history of the Templars (including their brutal, ritual sacrifice of a half-naked woman) was trimmed and moved before the credits, where it served as a prologue; the lesbian flashback ended before Betty kisses Virginia; the scene of Virginia taking off her clothes when she unwittingly spends the night in the Templars castle was trimmed; Pedro's rape of Betty was entirely removed; the brief glimpses of carnage inside the train at the end were toned way down (including a truly shocking moment when a young child cries in fear as her mother's blood drips on his face!); and a few other minor bits and pieces excised.
The Blue Underground DVD release includes the censored English-language version along with the uncut Spanish-language version (whose subtitles are often markedly different from the dubbed dialogue). The print of the film for the Spanish version look markedly clearer and brighter, with a sharper image and better color.
As if censorship were not enough, TOMB OF THE BLIND DEAD also underwent the indignity of being retitled REVENGE FROM PLANET APE, in an attempt to pass it off as part of the PLANET OF THE APES film series. The DVD includes a brief alternate opening sequence wherein a voiceover narrator explains that the eyeless horrors we are to meet later in the film are actually simian invaders from another planet, defeated and blinded centuries ago!
The DVD also includes an English-language theatrical trailer, and a good gallery of posters, lobby cards, and color and black-and white stills.