Impulse Buy Theater - Tombs of the Blind Dead
At the time, the joke couldn’t have held any meaning for me…and yet I found it funny.
You see, when I was growing up and we finally got cable in my middle school and high school years, Nick-At-Nite used to run classic Saturday Night Live episodes from the opening days of the long-running sketch show. These were the original ‘Not Ready for Prime-Time Players’. The joke I’m referring to was from an old Weekend Update, then hosted by Chevy Chase…with help for the hearing impaired by Garret Morris…where it was announced, rather loudly, that Francisco Franco was still dead. The humor for me, at that time, was strictly from the fact that the little oval that usually produced someone using sign language to convey what was being said was replaced by someone that was just shouting instead. At the time, I had no idea who Francisco Franco was or why it was important that he was still dead.
That, I would discover later. No, this isn’t a history lesson and yes, we’ll actually be reviewing a film here, but it is important to at least touch on the censorship of the Franco regime and the role it had in producing what would eventually become known as “Eurosleaze” cinema. The aforementioned censorship did erode slightly toward the end of Franco’s reign/life…allowing for films that would ordinarily be censored to a high degree to exist, but not purely as Spanish cinema…instead as co-productions, most notably with Italy (hence why so many Spaghetti Westerns were filmed in Spain) or, in the case of today’s film, Tombs of the Blind Dead, with Portugal. Like anything that is repressed, be it a teenager or a culture, when the pendulum does finally swing…it swings hard. So too did the up and coming directors of Spain at the time…first leaving Spain to make films in these co-productions partnered with more open cinematic minds and markets and then, upon Franco’s death, returning home. Among the most notable of these is Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco (not related!) who is often hailed as a pioneer in this mixing of horror and eroticism in film. Not far behind him though, I’ve discovered, is director Armando de Ossorio and his seemingly forgotten series of Blind Dead films.
Enough prologue, let’s take a look at the movie. I want to say that the set-up is a bit complicated but as you watch the film it really isn’t so long as you study the subtext. However…having to explain it in a review…I might end up losing you…so here we go. The film opens poolside at what looks to be a resort and we’re introduced to Bette who ends up being our protagonist…kinda? Anyway, she’s spotted by Virginia, a friend from her boarding school days…and if you know your Eurosleaze, then you know what’s coming up next. Yep, turns out there was some experimentation in boarding school…if you know what I mean and I think you do. Bette seems to be interested in rekindling that while Virginia has seemingly moved on, introducing her boyfriend(?), Roger. Roger, upon the introduction, only has eyes for Bette…practically treating Virginia like she isn’t even there. I mean, sure, prior to his arrival, Virginia tells Bette that the relationship isn’t all that serious, but come on Rog…have at least the tiniest bit of decorum, huh? Nope. Roger’s on a full-court press now for Bette to join them for a weekend in the Spanish countryside. You can imagine Virginia’s reaction…trying to be polite while asserting her territory…but eventually the three of them meet at the train platform the next day. This odd triangle further defines itself on the train: Virginia is there to hook up with Roger, Roger is there to hook up with Bette and Bette is there to hook up with Virginia. The thing is though is that Virginia kinda proves to be a bit of an enigma. Yes, she’s clearly uncomfortable when Bette brings up their shared past experience, yet she initially downplays her and Roger’s involvement with each other. There may be a sexual identity issue going on within her. Or I’m making shit up…you know, whichever. Regardless of all that, the combination of her jealousy at how Roger is acting toward Bette and her discomfort with Bette results in Virginia jumping from the extremely slow moving train and heading for the ruins of the medieval town of Berzano…home to this film’s version of the Knights Templar.
Okay, stop the movie for a sec, here comes a brief [From you? HA! – Ed.] history lesson on said Knights. This Order was founded during the Crusades and amassed a fair amount of power, money and real estate by the time said Crusades had ended. As such, they looked to exert that power in the name of Christ in Europe. Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church took a big exception to that. You know, because that’s their job. Thus began a smear campaign that would eventually lead to the Templars being hunted down and killed throughout much of France while the remainder of Europe’s opinions varied but the ultimate result is that the Templars were ruined, both their reputation and themselves as an institution. What’s noteworthy in the case of this series of films is the story the Catholic Church fostered about them being Satanists that practiced the Black Mass.
We’re told in the span of this film that the Templars of Berzano did indeed not only practice the Black Mass but also strung up virgins, sliced them up from horseback and then drank the blood right from the source. [Who needs this chalice or grail nonsense! Granted, depending on the virgin, can’t say I’m completely against this. If we were into blood sacrifices, which, you know, given blood-borne pathogens, we’re not. – Ed.] All for eternal life. Well, said blasphemers were caught, hung until their eyes were pecked out by birds, then buried. But it turns out that Dracula was right about the whole bloodsucking thing and we have ourselves some shambling undead mummified vampiric knights who can’t see…The Blind Dead. Oh, and these knights have horses who aren’t so desiccated…actually not desiccated at all. So…Satan likes his horsies. Better than people. Can’t blame him there.
So, it’s their castle in Berzano where Virginia finds herself. Do I even need to say what happens next? The remainder of the movie can be summed up in once Virginia meets her demise (or does she?), it’s up to Roger and Bette to figure out what is going on and avoid becoming the prey of the Blind Dead.
While not as sleazy as many of its contemporaries, particularly the films of Jess Franco, Tombs of the Blind Dead gets a lot of things right. First off, the look of the Knights is amazing…desiccated corpses in knights’ mail and tunics…and their shtick is pretty unique. As the title suggests, they’re blind (having had their eyes plucked out by birds), so they locate their prey via sound. Now, it could very easily be argued that they are guided by other forces, likely supernatural, because they weren’t constantly bumping into walls (and thinking about that…I’d kinda love to see that actually!) and it’s really the only way to explain how they can ride their horses (who are strangely perfectly fine…). Speaking of their horses, the riding scenes are filmed slightly in slow motion…if I had to venture a guess about 0.75x. It ends up giving the horses and their mounts an otherworldly, ethereal quality that, for as low-tech as it is, is really rather genius. Lastly, de Ossario has gone on the record to say that this film was inspired in part by Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and in some ways it shows…the slow moving nature of the Knights (although…you know…they ARE blind…so that might have something to do with it too), the siege at the ruins of Berzano (both times) and how the film ends. Sure, Bette makes it to the end credits, but there are a LOT of people that don’t. And make no mistake, Bette doesn’t fall into that “final girl” category that has been popular ever since the slasher films of the 80s. No, Bette is simply the last one standing…actually, a better analogy would be that she was the reed in the wind. After all, she’s had a pretty shitty go of it for the film: her love interest died (came back and died again), she’s been hit on by her (dead) love interest’s love interest, she’s been besieged by undead knights and she’s been raped while being besieged by undead knights. At the very least, that’s gonna take years of therapy! And there’s probably going to be some electroshock in there for the first year or two…or three. By the end of the film, if we continue the comparison to Romero’s classic, Bette has likely devolved to the nigh catatonic state that Barbara inhabited for much of her encounter with zombies.
To flip the coin, it’s when the interpersonal entanglements of the characters are highlighted in the film that things bog down a bit, sometimes devolving into utter confusion. This seems like the best time to point out the different versions of the film. You see, the first time I watched this film, I looked at the dubbed US version and while I enjoyed the concept…I wasn’t sure if I was going to delve any deeper into this series or not. It was just confusing and on top of that, as what happened to many a Eurosleaze film as they made their way over to the US, the way the film was edited for American audiences was sloppy not only adding to the confusion but also clearly broadcasting that yes, there are scenes you’re missing and no, we’re not going to show them to you…in some ways de-sleazing the film which kinda goes against the whole point! So I really have to emphasize here, check out the Spanish version…it’s 20 minutes longer and some of the scenes are moved around for a better narrative flow.
All in all, the Blind Dead prove to be an interesting blend of the Dracula, Mummy and Zombie mythos and as such, it’s a shame that this series of films feels like it’s a forgotten treasure. If Tombs of the Blind Dead is any indication, this looks like a fun romp of “Eurosleaze-lite” horror films that I’m looking forward to completing. The American version of the film can be found in a couple of different locations on Roku…but honestly, given that Synapse Films has a collection of all 4 films for around $20 on Amazon, it feels like a purchase with minimal risk. That’s what I did and just on the merits of the first film and having the Spanish version…it’s worth it!