Things aren't going too well in this tiny California town - not only is the local bully/rancher trying to take over the ranch owned by the town doctor and his family, but there's some sort of mysterious illness sweeping the town. The sickness only affects young women, causing them to waste away, and in the three previous cases it's proven fatal.
As the movie begins, however, the latest victim appears to be getting better. The embattled Doc Carter (John Hoyt) wisely lays her recovery more to the nighttime prayer vigil held at her bedside by the local preacher, Dan (Eric Fleming), than his medicine. The relieved parents take the two men into the kitchen to have a celebratory breakfast; their jubilation is cut short by the girl's cry. As they burst into her bedroom, no one notices the window shutter rattling open - all eyes are on the still, lifeless form on the bed. As Doc ushers the distraught parents out, Dan prays over the body - and notices two small puncture marks on her neck wet with blood.
Doc and his daughter Dolores (Kathleen Crowley) return to their ranch only to find young Tim (Jimmy Murphy) strapping on his guns. Seems the local bully rancher, Buffer, has dammed up the river that feeds the Carters' cattle - and when Tim demanded that Buffer undam the river, the rancher had his henchmen rough him up. Doc orders Tim back into the house, and drives into town to enlist the aid of the Sheriff (Ed Binns).
While the Sheriff is in the local saloon, facing down Buffer (Bruce Gordon) and his thugs, Doc drives his carriage back to his ranch, unaware that a sinister figure in dark clothing and black leather is following him... and when the carriage arrives at the Carter ranchhouse, there is a dead man at the reins.
After Doc's funeral, a hired hand tells Tim that Buffer's men have cut a section of fence and taken off with eighty head of cattle. The hotheaded Tim heads to the saloon, and after a lengthy bout of liquoring up, challenges Buffer to a gun fight. Despite the Sheriff's intervention, Tim goads Buffer into drawing, and the older man, not only more experienced but sober, kills him. The next day, Dolores - the sole surviving member of the Carter family - starts hanging up posters offering "$100 for the Death of a Murderer". The Sheriff follows her, pulling each one down - but one still finds its way into the hands of that black-leathered figure.
The figure saunters into the Saloon - Buffer's hangout - with the poster in hand. He is Drake Robey (Michael Pate), gun for hire, and he aims to talk to Miss Dolores about this job. One of Buffer's men draws on the gunman, but although he shoots first, Robey still shoots the gun out of his hand and walks away unharmed. Angered, Buffer fires the thug on the spot - although the astonished man insists he hit Robey.
At the Carter ranch, Preacher Dan is going through Doc's strong box, trying to find the dead man's will. He tells Dolores he'll take it to town and do a more complete search of the papers; and this is where the script finally decides to tell us that Dan and Dolores are in love with each other. Robey arrives and offers his services; when Dolores accepts his offer, Dan angrily leaves. That night, Robey visits the sleeping Dolores, and bends slowly to her neck....
Searching through the papers, Dan finds a secret compartment containing the diary of Don Robles, the Spanish nobleman who sold the ranch to Doc Carter after "some sort of family tragedy". The diary spells out the tragedy all too clearly: the Don had sent his eldest son, Drago, to Madrid on business, and when he returned, he found his bride in the arms of his brother. Drago stabbed his brother to death, and later, in a fit of grief, committed suicide in the family tomb. Three nights later, a shadowy figure visited the bedside of Drago's new widow, and hearing her cries, the Don broke into the room and grappled with the intruder - and to his horror, found himself staring into the face of his dead son.
Yes, Dan finally knows what we've known for quite some time: that Drake Robey is really Drago Robles, a vampire who has been preying on local girls and now hides during the day in Doc Carter's coffin. Hard upon the heels of this discovery, Robey kills the Sheriff, and Dan notices the two punctures on the man's neck. Leaving the Sheriff's office, the preacher finds himself pursued by someone lurking in the shadows, and panicking, runs to the church. This is his salvation, as he sees Robey cringe physically as the shadow of the cross on the church's steeple, etched in the bright moonlight, falls across him. Now Dan has to convince Dolores of the true nature of Robey, and find a way to destroy him...
Yeah, I like the movie enough to not tell you what happens next.
Curse of the Undead is an interesting film, done in the heyday of Universal's b-movie machine, when the studio seemed to turn out odd little gems like Tarantula!, The Leech Woman, Monster on the Campus and The Monolith Monsters once a week. Though the production is pretty poverty-stricken and studio-bound on most fronts, it's the confluence of a trend in the then-staid western with an intriguingly traditional approach to the vampire mythos that should make this movie better known than it is.
Though nowhere near as deconstructive as the much later Unforgiven, the late fifties saw the rise of the Psychological Western, as the genre tried to expand past its boundaries to become more than mere entertainment, to try to say something important about the Human Condition; important films like The Searchers brought a depth and realism to its characters that had been missing in a field largely crowded with cardboard characters moving about with predestined motivations.
Curse benefits from this trend by elevating itself above the trite range war backstory. Buffer is a bully, true, but smart enough to listen to the Sheriff when the lawman urges him to simply walk away from the drunken Tim - at least until the young man's insults cause him to turn and fire. He also knows he's outmatched by Robey, and willingly agrees to a stiff penalty system proposed by Preacher Dan that will wreck him financially if anything else ever befalls the Carter Ranch - if only Dolores will send away her hired gun. The Sheriff is portrayed as a working stiff who generally tries to talk his way through the brooding conflicts around him, but shows a fair amount of backbone when he walks into the lion's den of Buffer's Saloon.
Sadly, our other majors are a fairly uninspiring lot. Dolores is a stronger female character than one usually finds in a horror movie of this vintage, but most of her decisive action stems directly from anger and grief - when she's not exhibiting either of those emotions, she seems amiable to just about anything Dan says.
Speaking of Dan, the hero is, as usual, a fairly boring sort, all uprightness and deep voice. When you get right down to it, most heroes aren't very fun to play - they usually can't be interesting enough to give an actor any leeway in interpretation. The Leading Man in movies like this requires a very special performer. Handsome and well-spoken enough that the audience feels comfortable identifying with him, but unextraordinary enough to encourage that identification. Here the duty falls to Eric Fleming, whom those of you more drawn to sci-fi will recognize from Queen of Outer Space or George Pal's Conquest of Space. But those who like their westerns will recognize him from his long, successful run as trail boss Gil Favor on the old series Rawhide, opposite a very young Clint Eastwood*.
As a leading man, Fleming was more than serviceable, and manages to play Preacher Dan - a man with not only the wisdom of Solomon, but a strength of faith normally reserved for saints - with a sureness that allows us to accept the character as a real person. The spiritual center of this small community (so small it's rather a shock when we finally see a crowd scene near the end), yet a man of his time, who resolutely straps on a gun belt when it is finally time for a showdown with his new Nemesis. We all wanted to be people like that when we were kids. Fleming died a tragic early death in 1966 while filming a movie in Peru - while I don't think he was good enough to eventually supplant any of Hollywood's idols, he still had a lot of B-movies ahead of him, and that black-and-white universe was darker without him.
But even with a fairly intelligent script and solid cast, this western would sink into the obscurity currently inhabited by many of its brethren, if not for the element of the fantastic at its core: the vampire, Drake Robey, or Drago Robles. Past the almost requisite, almost cutesy-poo touch of naming its villain Drake or Drago, with its linguistic similarities to the more infamous Dracula, director/writer Edward Dein and his wife Mildred are to be commended for bucking what could be considered Common Knowledge and returning to the source for their internal mythos: Spanish folklore.
Everyone carries a stock set of notions that "Everybody Knows"; when it comes to genre films, a lot of these notions can be traced back to the Universal horror classics of the 30's. Curt Siodmak, in writing The Wolf Man, created an entire mythology around werewolves that is still accepted as rote today: the full moon, the silver bullets, the pentagrams, the "curse" of lycanthropy transmitted through the bite - Siodmak gathered a little here, a lot there, made up some stuff... and thus I get traumatized when I see Curse of the Werewolf at age 12 because Oliver Reed doesn't operate like Larry Talbot.
Most of what we know about vampires comes down to us through Bram Stoker's Dracula (the book, not the Coppola movie. And never mention the name of that... that thing in my presence again!); from there through the Universal pictures, the Hammer Films... the truth is, minimal research will show you that there are as many different types of vampires as there are countries, and each locale puts its individual spin on the creature. The Wurdalak, featured in Black Sabbath, who can only drink the blood of family; the Baobhan Sith, who entice travelers to dance by their side until the victims unknowingly bleed to death; the Philippine Aswang, with a taste for unborn children; all vampires of one stripe and another, one origin and another.
By returning to European roots, this vampire movie rids itself of several typical vampire tropes that would have only served to cause it to be compared with all other vampire flicks, especially the Hammer horrors that were starting to come into vogue at about this time. Drake is a vampire because he committed the mortal sin of suicide - traditionally suicides were buried at crossroads to prevent them from returning as vampires. Because of this, none of Robey's victims will be returning from the dead; without the subplot of seeking out the vampire's "brides" and putting them to rest, we are left to concentrate only on the conflict between Robey and Dan.
Robey is also free to walk to walk the land during the hours of daylight, which outrages many viewers of this movie. According to some legends, yes, vampires can do this. They are weakened and the light's too damned bright, but they can do it. Lacking also (by and large) are the traditional hypnotic powers of the Hollywood vampire. Though at one point Dolores sleepwalks out to a waiting Robey, the vampire seems almost surprised to find her so; mere moments before, in her bedroom, he had resisted biting her a second time, as he has become truly attracted to the woman. No, for the most part, Robey relies upon his skill as a smooth talker (that is, when he doesn't have to worry about not being the fastest draw in the room - so what if he gets shot?).
When Dolores is convinced to discharge the gunslinger of his murderous duty, he plays upon her sympathies by explaining that he has a degenerative eye condition, and cannot stand daylight; thus he convinces her to hire him on as a sort of night watchman, so he can begin to earn an honest living. Thereafter, convinced she is helping a bad man reform (a tragic misapprehension which has been the downfall of too many of my female friends), Dolores defends him at every turn, even as her confusion mounts and her relationships with all around her deteriorate.
His prevarication falls short, however, when confronted with the pure, straight-and-narrow capital-R Right of Dan. At separate times, when Robey compares his trade to that of a professional soldier, or claims that he is a creature more to be pitied than despised, Dan's ultra-conservative rhetoric immediately reveals the gunfighter's rationalizations for the pathetic lies they are. Hell, if Dan were running for President, chances are I would vote for him, and my politics lie somewhere to the left of Captain Nemo.
If Robey's Spanish roots dispel the usual weaknesses attributed to the vampire, his Catholic background leaves him wide open to at least one of those traditional vulnerabilities: the Christian cross. When he first meets Preacher Dan, the vampire is dazzled by a bright light issuing from a button worn on Dan's lapel - a light which only Robey can see. When Dan explains that the cross upon the button was supposedly carved from a thorn found at the site of the Crucifixion, Robey's true nature is confirmed to the audience - as if we had any doubt! (The eerie theremin music that underscores each of his early appearances was also quite helpful) That said, the role is helped immeasurably by veteran bad guy Michael Pate's even-handed, matter-of-fact performance; he never gives in to the mwoo-hah-ha evil possibilities evident in the role, but maintains a believable menace behind a steady, almost charming mask. I know guys like this, and you do, too.
Curse of the Undead proves itself uncommon in both of the movie genres it straddles - a Western where the gunfight is the last resort, a vampire movie that plops its creature in unfamiliar terrain and unapologetically violates its own dictums. That it is relatively unknown can be laid to its low budget ( shadows of crew members are bad style, no matter the budget) and its story, which, sadly, unfortunately - never breaks truly new ground in either of its genres.
Entertaining - and sometimes that's enough.
- September 4, 2000