“Do you remember the voodoo rites? Faust, and all those who make pacts with the evil spirit do so with blood. The knights performed human sacrifices, consummating the offering with a virgin’s blood. Now they’ve awakened from the beyond, and without eyes to see, they find their victims by the sounds they make, and continue to offer human sacrifices to their evil master.” – Professor Candal (Francisco Sanz) (from Tombs of the Blind Dead)
With the advent of the Blind Dead films, Spanish filmmaker Amando de Ossorio introduced a new form of zombie, an eyeless, ambulatory half-ghost/half-living dead being. Over the course of the four installments, the re-animated corpses underwent several permutations, but followed a common thread. In one way or another, Templar knights make a pact with the forces of evil, and as a stipulation of their unearthly contract, must feed off the blood of virgins to stay alive.
Of course, all of this undead mayhem requires a certain suspension of disbelief. As the slow-moving corpses inexorably make their way toward their screaming victims, we all know their prey have ample time to escape, but that’s not really the point of these movies. The knights represent the inevitability of fate and grappling with forces beyond our control. Why are their victims so passive? I’m not an historian or global politics buff, so I might be going out on a limb when I propose this series of films was de Ossorio’s veiled response to Franco’s fascist regime. The Templar knights seem to represent the stranglehold the pre-1975 Spanish government held over its citizens. Living in constant fear of reprisal, the citizens resorted to learned helplessness as a dysfunctional coping mechanism. The few malcontents who attempt to battle the knights usually meet terrible ends, so not fighting them seems the only sane response.
Tombs of the Blind Dead (aka: La Noche del Terror Ciego) (1971) Directed by Amando de Ossorio; Written by Amando de Ossorio and Jesús Navarro Carrión; Starring: César Burner, Lone Fleming, María Elena Arpón, José Thelman and Francisco Sanz
Available on DVD
In de Ossorio’s first film, two old friends, Bette and Virginia (Lone Fleming and María Elena Arpón) meet at a resort in Portugal, and decide to embark on a camping trip. When Bette’s boyfriend Roger (César Burner) enters the mix, it stirs up long dormant memories in Virginia (the European cut includes a flashback scene where Bette and Virginia experience a brief lesbian tryst during their college days). They take a train together, but Virginia unwisely decides to disembark midway before their destination. She ends up in an old, abandoned village that was once the domain of the ancient Templars, and meets her untimely demise.
The rest of the film shifts the focus to Bette and Roger, as they attempt to uncover the mystery of the strange village and Virginia’s death. We learn about the 14th century Templar knights, who returned from Egypt with the secrets of eternal life. Their sadistic rituals became legend, and kept the surrounding locales gripped in fear through the present day. Centuries after they were destroyed, the knights rise from their crypts to exact revenge against the living.
Compared to the later entries in the series, Tombs of the Blind Dead is the most artful of the bunch, containing some fancy shots and inventive murders. Borrowing from the Italian thrillers of the period, the film has a distinctive giallo vibe. In one memorable scene, an employee in Bette’s mannequin shop is stalked by Virginia’s reanimated corpse (the shop is conveniently located next to a morgue), with the room bathed in flashes of red light from a neon sign. You can run from the Templars, but escape from their wrath is futile. As the haunting final scene asserts, death is the only option when you cross their path.
* Fun fact: In a lame effort to cash in on the success of the Planet of the Apes movies, Tombs of the Blind Dead was marketed in the U.S. as Revenge from Planet Ape, despite the film’s conspicuous absence of ape-men.
The Return of the Evil Dead (aka: El Ataque de los Muertos Sin Ojos) (1973) Written and directed by Amando de Ossorio; Starring: Tony Kendall, Fernando Sancho, Esperanza Roy and Frank Braña; Available on DVD
This worthy follow-up to Tombs of the Blind Dead more or less picks up where the last one left off, but throws the Templar knights’ origins out the window (in the original film, the Templars were hanged, and crows ate their eyes out, but in the second entry, the knights are burned). The film is set in the small Portuguese town of Bouzano, where an annual celebration is held to commemorate the citizens’ victory over the knights centuries ago. But wouldn’t ‘ya know it? The legend about the knights rising from their graves to wreak havoc turns out to be true.
The Return of the Evil Dead aims for action over art. Once again, the knights are easy to escape, but the passive townspeople quickly succumb to them. For some unexplained reason, the knights’ numbers seem to have multiplied, compared to the first film. What once started as a small group of murderous demon knights now appears to be a few dozen. The survivors huddle together in a monastery, in a vain attempt to barricade themselves from the undead hordes. Similar to Night of the Living Dead, this confinement brings out the worst in a select few, notably the loathsome mayor Duncan (Fernando Sancho). In his effort to escape the clutches of the knights, he uses one of his willing civil servants, along with a young girl, as pawns. Things don’t go well for Duncan.
The Ghost Galleon (aka: El Buque Maldito) (1974) Written and directed by Amando de Ossorio; Starring: Maria Perschy, Jack Taylor, Bárbara Rey, Carlos Lemos and Blanca Estrada; Available on DVD
The Ghost Galleon (which also went by the more generic title, Horror of the Zombies) is easily the weakest of the four Blind Dead films, thanks to a feeble story and sloth-like pacing. It’s notable only for the novel setting, and an endless parade of polyester fashion atrocities. As part of a millionaire’s (Jack Taylor) ill-advised publicity stunt, two fashion models are stranded on the open ocean, and encounter a (presumably) deserted 16th century sailing vessel, shrouded in fog.* As it turns out, the ship’s captain was a devotee of the Templar knights, and transported their bodies across the ocean (to where, it’s never made clear).
* I couldn’t help but speculate if this movie provided some inspiration for John Carpenter’s superior take on similar subject matter, The Fog.
Compared to its two predecessors, most of the film is painfully dull. I understand the need for dramatic tension, but that shouldn’t constitute the bulk of the picture. It takes almost half of its 90-minute running time for something to occur. When it happens, it’s a welcome respite, but we’re not invested enough in any of the characters to care. The final scene is suitably unsettling, but it doesn’t excuse the glacial scenes that preceded it. What should have been a tense, claustrophobic excursion into horror turns out to be an uninspired, pointless exercise in tedium.
The Night of the Seagulls (aka: La Noche de las Gaviotas) (1975) Written and directed by Amando de Ossorio; Starring: Víctor Petit, María Kosty, Sandra Mozarowsky, José Antonio Calvo and Julia Saly; Available on DVD
The fourth and final entry in the Blind Dead series is an improvement over the previous film, although by this time the concept is wearing a little thin. Unlike the former film, The Night of the Seagulls jumps right into the action, albeit on a familiar note (ho-hum, another sacrificial altar scene). Once again, instead of maintaining continuity between each of his Blind Dead installments, de Ossorio casts a slightly different spin on the mythos of the Templar knights. This film asserts the knights originated from France 600 years ago. In a nod to Lovecraft, they worship an undersea god (who resembles a frog).
A doctor and his wife (Víctor Petit and María Kosty) move to an isolated seaside village populated by suspicious, unfriendly people. They observe a procession of cloaked figures on the beach, which turns out to be part of a seven-day ritual to appease the undead knights. The village’s silence and strict adherence to a barbaric tradition serves as a warning against complacency and blind acquiescence to the group.
The sexist, thick-headed doctor is the film’s weakest link. Instead of choosing to believe her suspicions about the townspeople, he chooses to chalk off his wife’s concerns to hysteria. As a result, it takes forever for him to arrive at the realization that something’s amiss, and plan an escape. While it occasionally stumbles, Night of the Seagulls is a fitting final entry in the series, concluding on a hopeful note. The closing scene reminds us it’s possible to break a chain, but it requires a new approach to an old problem.