Bruce Lanier Wright, in his book Nightwalkers, an archly written but loving history of the English Gothic movie, makes reference to "Italian horror cinema and its idiot brother, Spanish horror cinema." It gave me a belly laugh, and there are doubtless many of you who are already composing your angry, hurt rebuttals. Save it - write Bruce, not me. Better yet, buy multiple copies of his book and then burn them - that'll show him!
But the truth is, most of Spanish horror cinema is not to my taste, though I'll admit that Paul Naschy has given me some enjoyment. And there is no denying that this week's movie, La Noche del Terror Ciego, or as we gringos like to call it, Tombs of the Blind Dead, is considered a small masterpiece in the horror genre.
Things begin normally enough with two old friends, Betty (Lone Fleming) and Virginia (Elena Arpón), meeting by chance at a pool in Lisbon - they haven't seen each other since their boarding school days. Betty has set up a shop that constructs department store mannequins ("Near the morgue?" "It's the best I could afford." Think this may become significant?) Virginia is... well, we don't know what she's doing, but she has a boyfriend. That is, she'd like him to be her boyfriend, but he just considers her a good friend, the cad.
Speak of the devil, up pops the non-boyfriend, Roger (César Burner), who invites Betty and a date along on his and Virginia's planned camping weekend (much to Virginia's dismay). Even more to Virginia's dismay, when Betty shows up at the train station dateless, Roger still insists she accompany them. Adding to her discomfort, Betty and Roger are hitting it off quite well, leading to Virginia taking a private moment on the rear platform of the train. Betty tries to comfort her, but this only leads to a flashback of the two womens' lesbian experimentations back in school.
Now thoroughly confused, Virginia sees a building in the distance and jumps off the train (slow moving train!) and walks toward it. Betty and Roger, still on the rear platform, see her and hit the emergency alarm. Up in the engine, the father and son engineer team spot Virginia walking away - "She doesn't know what she's in for," says the father; they also hear the alarm bell which Roger is frantically ringing, but the father refuses to stop.
Virginia soon finds out that the building she saw is some sort of ruined castle. Instead of walking back to the track and following it back to town, she pulls out her camping gear, bars the door to a chamber, and beds down for the night. This, however, only after a lengthy bout of exploring the ruins. This exploration sequence serves several purposes: it pads the film out nicely, it gives us a sense of the layout of the place - which will become quite important in later scenes; and it also allows a Spring Loaded Cat (or perhaps el Gato con Propulçión) - handy, since we haven't had a scare in while. The movie starts with an exceedingly fake one, and it doesn't count.
That night, creepy stuff stars to happen in the castle's graveyard, but Virginia is listening to generic jazz on her transistor radio, and thus doesn't hear the zombies rising from their graves. Now, director Amando del Ossorio has created here zombies that are quite outside the norm for these movies - they look genuinely dead, more at home in one of those grisly catacombs where they stack the dead up against the walls and just let them dry out. Clad in decaying medieval cerements, they truly are the inhabitants of somebody's nightmare. And oh, yeah, they ride horses. I can only assume that these are zombie horses, although they seem to be in much better shape than their riders.
Well, Virginia finally turns off her radio and gets curious about those noises outside her door. To her credit, she looks out the window first, but there is something rather disquieting about opening a shutter only to find a skeleton leering in at you... And one advantage to having skeletal hands, we discover, is that you can reach in between the rough hewn boards of a door and lift off the bar, allowing you and your fellow zombies entrance.
Virginia keeps retreating through the building, always pausing long enough for the zombies to break down a door before moving to the next room. Finally, she finds herself on the roof, and manages to climb down and actually steal one of the zombie horses. There is a brief chase, but Virginia doesn't handle her zombie horse at all well; she is pulled down and the zombies assemble around her...
The next day, the passing train spots her body in the clearing; once again Papa Engineer refuses to stop, saying, "Let the police handle it." Meanwhile, at the hotel, Betty and Roger are discussing Virginia's disappearance (Hotel? Weren't they going camping? I have to admit, I rather like this European concept of camping!*). Their waitress identifies the building they saw Virginia walking toward as "Berzano" - a place none of the hotel employees are allowed to discuss, if they want to keep their jobs. So Betty and Roger rent horses and head out to this forbidden Berzano.
The horses bolt when the two are foolish enough to dismount in the middle of the castle's graveyard. Nevertheless, they press on, finding Virginia's abandoned sleeping bag and other effects, like the shoe she lost on a decaying staircase. They also find that they are not alone.... no, it's not the zombies, it's the cops, come to tell them that Virginia was murdered, and they are needed to identify the body.
So it's back to Lisbon, where we find the morgue is run by... Coffin Joe! Well, no, it's not really Brazil's favorite horror icon, but it is an amazing simulation (Simón Arriaga), and he really enjoys his job, particularly unveiling the remains of loved ones. The coroner later reveals that Virginia's body bears the bite marks of over a dozen individuals...
Roger shows up at Betty's shop the next day - next door to the morgue, remember? - and Betty reveals that her assistant Nina (Verónica Llimera) comes from a village perhaps 20 miles from Berzano; she relates a legend that Berzano contains the remains of the accursed Knights Templar, and they rise from the grave every night, seeking blood to drink.. Roger and Betty leave to pursue a lead...
But we've no time for that, it's time for fun with Coffin Joe! Joe is tormenting his pet frog when attendants return Virginia's body, fresh from the autopsy. Joe almost does something (probably) perverse to her body, but his pet bird interrupts him, squawking fearfully. Joe returns to his amphibian antics, not noticing that Virginia has returned to some semblance of life behind him. And thus does Joe exit our picture, with Virginia gnawing on the back of his neck.
There were Roger and Betty going? To a nearby library, where they convince Prof. Cantell (Francisco Sanz) to tell them about the Templars. To shorten the story, the Templars returned from the Crusades with a passel of black magic, including a blood ritual that was supposed to grant them eternal life; they were excommunicated, and left hanging until birds pecked out their eyes. That's the condensed version - in the movie you are given a lengthy flashback where we see the templars cut open a rubber chest and then gather around a bloody woman to drink the blood from her wounds. The prof goes on to relate how the Templars are supposed to still rise from the grave to drink blood, but that whole birds-eating-the-eyes thing has rendered them blind, and they have to track their prey by sound - so if you manage to remain quiet in their presence, you should stay pretty safe. The prof in incredibly knoweledgable about these things, and unquestioningly believes in the existence of zombie Templar - he's a lot like Dr. Van Helsing, but without the butt-kicking abilities.
An example of Cantall's lack of Van Helsing qualities occurs when one of the cops shows up, not only to tell Roger and Betty that Coffin Joe is dead and Virginia's body is missing, but that Cantall's son runs a smuggling ring in the vicinity of Berzano, and they suspect the gang of Virginia's murder. To scare people off, you see. Peter Cushing would have snippily put the cop in his place. Cantall just dissolves into tears. Wuss. Killing some vampires would probably help him with his issues.
Meanwhile, back at Betty's shop (next door to the morgue, remember?), Nina receives a phone call from Betty telling her to lock the door because "we're in danger, you know." During this conversation, I noticed that there is some sort of Bunsen burner behind Nina. What, I wondered, would a mannequin shop need with an open flame? Not time to wonder about that, really, as the freshly undead Virginia is sneaking in - through the unlocked. Nina finds Virginia's bloody morgue sheet at the front door; she tosses it out into the alley and slams the bolt.
Now, when Nina discovers that she has locked herself with the Living Dead Girl, she of course tries to unbolt the door; as this is a crap movie, of course the bolt is jammed, or something. Nina manages to double back to the workshop area and tries to call the cops, but finally only manages to put that Bunsen burner to its intended use: setting zombies on fire. Yes, Virginia might as well have an inflammable sticker on her back, as she goes up like a tallow candle. Good-bye Virginia, and thanks for getting rid of Coffin Joe for us.
Where could Roger and Betty have gone? Why to visit Cantall's dastardly son, Pedro (Joseph Thelman)... though it really seems that should be the job of the police. Roger tells Pedro that he doesn't suspect the smuggler, but wants to get to the bottom of Virginia's death. He intends to spend the night at Berzano, and wants the smuggler to accompany him to clear his name. When this doesn't immediately work, Roger employs the classic "Wassamatter? You scared?" tactic, which works immediately; Pedro agrees to come along, bringing with him his Designated Slut girlfriend, Maria (Maria Silva).
So finally, we have hit Horror Film Major. While waiting in the same room where Virginia made her ill-considered camp, Pedro gets bored and announces he's going for a walk. He spurns the offer of Roger's company and asks Betty to go with him, instead. While the Designated Slut tries to make time with Roger, Pedro is in the graveyard finding out that Betty is a lesbian. This being the case, he rapes her, 1) establishing that you shouldn't go out walking with bandits and 2) sealing his fate as the character most likely to appear as the appetizer on the Templar Menu.
To be sure, a massive bell rings somewhere, and the brutalized Betty still has enough sense to split; Pedro stays behind to prove that he's not afraid of anyone. I'm sorry, that answer is WRONG as the Templars start crawling out of their tombs. Perhaps Pedro is actually nonplused that the film dares to re-use the same footage from the first resurrection scene. In any case, our rapist discovers that bringing a switchblade to a zombie fight is a bad idea - especially when the zombies are packing broadswords.
Roger arrives just in time to see Pedro become zombie kibble and discovers that the bullets in his gun - all three of them - are useless against the Templars, and he runs back to the room, where the women have barred the door. Maria either thinks that Roger has killed Pedro or that there are no such things as Templars (far be it from the movie to actually be clear on this point), and refuses to let Betty open the door, leading to a catfight as Roger pounds ever more furiously on the door, the mounted Templar cavalry closing on him.
By the time Betty finally manages to open the door, he's messily lost an arm to the Templar swords; she drags him into the room, closely followed by the zombies. Maria obligingly starts screaming her Designated Slut head off, causing the Templars to concentrate on her for the moment. "If you stay quiet, you should be safe," Roger reminds Betty, then expires (Too bad you didn't remember that for yourself, eh Roger?). The Templars, finished with the Maria course, turn to Betty, but pause, puzzled, as she even holds her breath.... but there's one sound that seems to be getting louder and louder: her heartbeat.
So Betty has little choice but to run. She dodges between the slow-moving zombies and heads off toward the railroad, after (naturally) taking the time to twist her ankle. This time the Son Engineer does not even consult Papa Engineer, but stops the train and runs to help her - at the cost of his life, and everyone on board the train, as the Templars dismount and invade the passenger cars. As Papa is carried off by the zombies, the lever is pulled that sets the train in motion, and it makes its ghostly way to the next station, where it is stopped by the station manager (like I said - slow moving train). Betty managed to crawl into the coal car and, though still alive, is quite insane. Commuters climb into the waiting cars, unprepared for the bloody scene before them... and the awaiting Templars. The end.
The final scene, the massacre aboard the train, is one of the few examples of a horror film's climax actually outdoing what comes before it; it is nightmarish in the extreme, yet accomplished mainly through sound; we don't see much of what's going on. In the restored Anchor Bay release, there are two snippets here that were almost certainly excised in the dubbed American version: they both involve a small, genuinely terrified little girl covered with her mother's blood. As I alluded once, in my commentary on the Evil Dead films, Horror is about the Transgression of Boundaries; okay - a personal boundary got transgressed. I admit it.
For a long, long time, that scene - and the scene where Roger loses his arm - were all I had seen of Tombs, which meant I went into a complete viewing with high hopes. That I was only disappointed in an exceedingly minor way speaks well of the movie, but there are simply too many problems I have, problems that keep dredging up that "Idiot Brother" sobriquet:
Oh, well. These cavils do not truly diminish the movie, which tends to rely on its considerable atmosphere more than an actual coherent story. De Ossorio's choice of setpieces is spot-on, from the long hallway in Betty's shop lined on either side by mannequins (and you just know that's prime zombie-hiding real estate) to those glorious Gaspar Friedrich ruins, a magnificent set that you could not build. The Templars themselves are a marvelous creation, and the scenes of them on horseback, shot in slow motion and almost completely silent, save for the occasional clip-clop of their mounts' hooves, are a bewildering blend of the beautiful and the horrific; they are Goya etchings come to life. Or un-life. Whatever.
So you really have to acquit Tombs of any wrongdoing of which it may be guilty; it provides not only a unique twist on the zombie story (and gives a reason for their predations.... why do Romero zombies crave living flesh, after all?), but it also rises above the Idiot Brother status to provide a strong introduction to Eurohorror, in general.