Impulse Buy Theater - Return of the Evil Dead
While it is the second film in the Blind Dead series of films, Return of the Evil Dead was the first film of the series that I’d heard of and the gateway that led me down this particular rabbit hole. Like many low budget or exploitation films of the late 60s and early 70s, this film also has other aliases…Return of the Blind Dead, Attack of the Blind Dead or the aforementioned Return of the Evil Dead, as it was called for US distribution and is the name on this DVD version from Blue Underground. As I saw the trailer for this movie on B-Movie TV on the Roku one night, the thought that popped into my head was, “Does Sam Raimi know about this film?” I don’t have a concrete answer to that, but if you look at his first two Evil Dead films and compare them to the first two films of the Blind Dead series…well, it certainly looks like that might be the case. Yes, yes, I know, the two series have vastly different protagonists, antagonists, settings, languages so on and so forth. If you look at the relationships between the first two films of each series, however, you should see what I mean: the first and second films generally tell the same story with some tweaks made here and there to ‘perfect’ the recipe. That’s not meant as a negative, but instead allows people who didn’t necessarily see the first films to jump in and be able to follow along just fine. Given the context of low-budget film distribution in the 60s and into the 80s…this makes sense and is generally a smart tactic: new viewers are brought in to a series while those that saw the first film will see enough tweaks to the story and overall improvements from the old film to the new that there is enough here to keep their attention.
Right off the bat, we’re shown that the origin of the Blind Dead is a little bit different here. The concept introduced in the previous film still stands, that these were Templar Knights who came back from the Crusades as worshipers of the black arts, using virgin sacrifice and blood-drinking as a means to immortality. What’s different is how they became blind: the professor in Tombs of the Blind Dead says that the Knights’ bodies were hung until birds pecked their eyes out while we’re shown in Return of the Evil Dead that once the Knights were rounded up, they swore a vengeance against the townspeople and as such, said townspeople burned their eyes out so that should the Knights be able to rise from the dead to take said vengeance, they would be unable to find their way.
There’s another big difference too…our setting has changed. We go from Berzano, a ruined monastery isolated in the countryside along the Spanish-Portuguese border to Bouzano, a small Portuguese town built around a ruined monestary. Given this change, so too changes the cause for the Blind Dead to rise. In the first film, they rose from their tombs at night upon hearing someone within the ruins. In the second, they are prophesied to return to take their vengeance but are awoken by a blood ritual conducted hastily by the village idiot, Murdo. [Great screenwriting there guys. – Ed.] I’ll overlook the changes of the town’s name…simply because it might be a matter or translation or which language, Spanish or Portuguese, you identify the town with. The element that is new is the town, offering more abundant victims whereas in the first film, it was only trespassers to the monastery that fall prey to the Blind Dead (although that would lead to the massacre on the passing train).
Let’s cover the plot real quick before we continue the analysis. The village of Bouzano is preparing to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the medieval townsfolk bringing an end to the reign of terror perpetrated by the Knights Templar. Here, we’re introduced to Jack Marlowe who will be in charge of the pyrotechnic display. He’s the standard rugged Euro-hero with an alluded to military background (sometimes referred to as Captain). He’s introduced to the village’s mayor, Duncan (no idea if that’s his first or last name) and his assistant/head thug Decosta. Jack is also somewhat surprised to see Duncan’s secretary/fiancé, Vivian…who had once been an old flame. Later on, we learn that she was the one who hired him for this gig so that she could use the opportunity to rekindle their romance. [It doesn’t take very long for that to happen…but sadly this film does veer away from the Eurosleaze elements that were present in the first. Bummer. – Ed.] As mentioned above, Murdo, the victimized and bullied village idiot (well…he’s more of a hunchbacked, mono-browed fellow with a slight mental retardation) plans his own revenge by killing a young townswoman on the grounds of the abandoned monastery and unleashing the Blind Dead to seek their own vengeance. I guess the idiot moniker applies if we consider that the fellow actually thinks he might be spared. [Unnecessary spoiler warning: he isn’t. – Ed.] Sure enough, at the height of the celebration, the Blind Dead attack and slaughter a vast majority of the village’s populace. Our main characters find themselves holed up in a church…with Murdo amongst them. Will they survive the night…or will the Blind Dead complete their revenge?
With the mentioning of the main characters finding themselves confined to a church for survival, once again we find director/writer Armando de Ossorio indebted to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. De Ossorio admitted the American director’s influence for his first film and it was evident in both the brief siege at the monastery and the eventual slaughter of the train passengers and overall depressing ending of the film…where evil has clearly triumphed. In Return, de Ossorio shows he has a better grasp of Romero’s work and how it functions cinematically. Sure, good ends up outlasting evil [Guess I missed the spoiler warning there…oops. My bad. – Ed.], but it is the interactions, motivations and eventual actions within the church where de Ossorio displays that he finally gets the tension that arises from human drama and that the monsters aren’t just on the outside but within the sanctuary as well. This is where we see our only brief nudity in the film [Actually, there are the occasional bits here and there: one from each blood sacrifice (so two total) and one post-coital dressing…but overall such scenes in this film are kept pretty short. – Ed.], where Decosta attempts to rape Vivian. Guided by the old phrase “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence and three times is enemy action,” I’m curious if rape and confusing love polygons will be things that find their way in each of the remaining films of the series.
Fortunately, they didn’t mess around with the elements that did work. The Knights still look creepy as heck. Hell, they reused the ‘rising from the cemetery’ shots that were used in the first film! Ordinarily, this would be a sign of laziness, but the scenes remain creepy and effective, so we’ll give them a pass on that. The Knights on horseback are still filmed in slow motion, giving them a more ethereal appearance and it still works great. Circling back to the make-up, we actually get our first look at an undead horse…granted it’s not the best look, but that’s likely due to the both the film quality at the time of shooting as well as the state of the film as it has aged through time before being transferred digitally to DVD.
One last similarity should be mentioned here, as actress Lone Fleming appears in both films, but not as the same character…which would have been entirely possible given how her character Bette from Tombs did in fact survive her encounter. No, in this film, she’s the wife of one of Duncan and Decosta’s goons. And no, she’s not quite as lucky this go round…and as you can tell from the above description, she’s significantly less lesbian this time too. [BOOOOO! – Ed.]
While Return of the Evil Dead, not to be confused as being part of Sam Raimi’s work, does shy away from more typical Eurosleaze elements, it does mark an improvement from the previous film by tightening the story and successfully heightening the human drama, very much in Romero fashion. All the while, it knows enough to not mess with what worked from the previous film. While for viewers of the original, Tombs of the Blind Dead, it will seem a little repetitive at times, there’s enough fresh material here to recommend giving it a look. There are two versions of the film, one in its native Spanish and an American version, but there isn’t much of a difference in run times…only about 4 minutes. The Spanish version has a bit more gore and a better narrative flow, so once again, I’d recommend that over the American one. So far this series has kept my attention and, again, I’d recommend it based on its first two chapters…but as any cinema fan will tell you, part 3 will either make or break your film series…thus I’m interested in what comes next on the Ghost Galleon.