by Dan Taylor
Are you bored with the standard issue zombie flick that's been beaten into the ground over the last four decades courtesy of countless Italian and (lately) Japanese retreads inspired by George Romero's groundbreaking DEAD flicks?
If so, then put down the remote and get your hands on the quartet of films featuring The Blind Dead released last fall by Blue Underground (www.blue-underground.com). Previously available under what seemed like dozens of titles and cuts, the films – TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971), RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD (1973), THE GHOST GALLEON (1974), and NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS (1975) – represent an inspired and consistently entertaining collection of horror cinema.
Written and directed by Amondo de Ossorio, The Blind Dead flicks are nothing short of a revelation for the exploitation junkie and B-film freak who thinks they've seen it all. And while the flicks pile on every hoary cliché of the horror genre – zombies at the window, hands clutching at victims through cracks in the door, feet caught in wooden stairs, twisted ankles, false shocks, stuck doors, creepy morgue guys and village retards – the zombie antagonists and atmospheric presentation make up for any minor shortcomings.
"While the Italians get most of the glory, the Templar films feature truly unique zombies," says BLIND DEAD expert and author David Zuzelo. "The Knights are bad enough when they're alive. Zombify them and it gets worse. We don't know what the agenda is but it's bad both in execution and results."
Known as everything from the simple and elegant THE BLIND DEAD to the needlessly cumbersome MARK OF THE DEVIL, PART 4: TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, de Ossorio's initial foray is a haunting affair than begins poolside at a bikini-clad-babe-filled European resort. There, Betty runs into her old "friend" Virginia who is vacationing with her decorator pal Roger.
Roger invites Betty along for a camping weekend and all is well until some unwelcome flirtation results in Virginia hopping from the moving train, leading to the grizzled conductor remarking, "That girl doesn't know what she's in for." Frankly, the same could be said of this viewer who was only familiar with The Blind Dead in passing thanks to stills in horror reference books.
Though Virginia attempts to make the dingy castle she stumbles upon a fun place to camp out for the night, once the graves in the castle courtyard start smoking you know things aren't going to go well.
Seems the old castle's the burial ground for The Knights Templar, former members of The Crusades who wound up being excommunicated because of their affinity for devil worship, virginal sacrifices and some flesh munching. Once conquered, the Knights were hung until crows came and ate out their eyes, so they're dead and they're blind but as one character remarks, "that will be no handicap."
After discovering that Virginia's been killed in what police suspect is a blood ritual, Roger (who has the pompadoured, sideburny paunch of a young Gary Glitter but without the whole Asian teen molesting thing) persuades a local smuggler to accompany him to the castle and solve the mystery. Tons of illogical horror film moments abound – as well as a rape and a catfight – but they're all completely excused thanks to de Ossorio's portrayal of the sinister zombified knights.
Skeletal to the point of disintegration, you can almost smell the musty clothing and rotting flesh of these unique and bizarre zombies as they hunt their prey by the sounds they make.
Nihilistic to the point of slack-jawed disbelief, BLIND DEAD climaxes with the zombified knights descending upon a train full of passengers as snapshots capture the gory glory in a tip of the cap to Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Two years later the Blind Dead were back and, quite frankly, better than ever in my opinion. If TOMBS is the STAR WARS of devil worshipping, virgin chomping, excommunicated knights flicks, then RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. It's just got more. More what, you ask? More action, more death, more blood, more eyes burned out, more, well, everything!
In the film's credit sequence the Knights are not only defeated they also get their eyes burned out so they can't find their way out of their tombs and raze the town to the ground as promised. Or so the townspeople think.
Years later it's time for the annual "Burning Festival" to celebrate the victory over the Knights. Sensing an opportunity to rekindle an old flame (and maybe ditch the sweaty, gross Mayor in the process), Vivian gets her pal The Captain a gig rigging the fireworks for the event.
Murdo, the creepy hunchback who looks like Stephen King, spies the two getting reacquainted, walks us through the history of the Knights (complete with bare maiden titties, some disembowling and a bit of blood drinking) and sacrifices a virgin in their graveyard.
True to their word, the Knights return to exact revenge upon their tormentors, though they probably didn't anticipate The Captain who helps the townspeople escape and sends the Knights packing, at least for the moment. Arriving at a local a church, a ragtag band of survivors including the mayor, a bunch of his henchmen, Vivian and The Captain set up shop to wait out the zombies.
In a nod to both Hitchcock's THE BIRDS and Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, de Ossorio pits the survivors against one another and The Blind Dead as they attempt to make it through the night.
Everything about RETURN is cranked up a notch or two higher than its predecessor. The script is more action packed, the characters more engaging and fleshed out. Even the stabs at comedy work, like the region's governor spending too much time oggling his housekeeper's pantie-clad ass to believe the Knights have returned from the grave. To me it's the highlight of the series, but de Ossorio and his knights weren't done by a long shot.
Proving you can't keep a good zombie down – even at sea – the knights were back in 1974's THE GHOST GALLEON (aka HORROR OF THE ZOMBIES and GHOST SHIPS OF THE BLIND DEAD) which, depending upon your mood, can be the best or worst entry in the series.
When two bikini-clad models on a super secret publicity stunt run into a sinister-looking, decaying ship in the middle of the ocean, it seems like a monumentally bad idea to climb aboard. Naturally, that's what they do, but without the super sexy results one might hope for.
After some surprisingly lighthearted kidnapping and rape, a rescue party – including the publicity stunt's organizer (B-movie vet Jack Taylor) and a Twilight Zone theory-spouting professor named Dr. Gruber – heads out in an attempt to locate the gals. They find the ship and board it, only to discover that it contains the coffins of The Blind Dead. After the Knights attack, chase down, hack and devour various members of the rescue team, Dr. Gruber performs a makeshift exorcism designed to end the curse forever, or as long as it takes for them to get away.
Though I found it less engaging than the rest of the series, GHOST GALLEON gets bonus points for placing the Knghts in a unique setting rather than deliver another variation on the "cursed town" theme. (Think JASON X for a modern example.) Unfortunately, the premise is beyond flimsy and even this hardened horror vet found it tough to buy some of the film's more far-fetched concepts like the bizarre publicity stunt and the poor Knights shuffling around the cramped ship. And just try not to laugh when the fakiest fake looking toy boat in cinematic history pops up on screen.
Returning from their duty at sea, de Ossorio's Knights had one last cinematic outing in them, the mesmerizing NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS. After a period opening featuring a lost couple, bared titties, a creepy frog gargoyle god, disemboweling, gut munching and even some pesky crabs it's back to the present day and time for Henry the new doctor to arrive in town. Somehow I don't think it's what he and his wife Joan were used to, especially after encountering the less-than-friendly townspeople, an old doctor who can't get out of town fast enough, and the village retard who looks like the bastard child of Arnold Vosloo and Pee-wee Herman!
Despite being told not to ask questions or go out at night, the good doctor and his wife do just that when they hear a procession heading down to the beach at midnight. While it sure looks like a sacrifice in the making to me, the new arrivals blow it off as a wacky local superstition and head back to bed.
Pretty soon the nocturnal ceremonies on the beach become hard to ignore, especially after one girl shows up at the doctor's door screaming nonsense and the townspeople come for Lucy, their housekeeper.
Hypnotic and leisurely paced, SEAGULLS reminds me of Stuart Gordon's excellent Lovecraft adaptation DAGON, which featured visitors to a Spanish town getting caught up in sacrifices and mysterious goings on with dreadful results.
Though they may not have more cinematic outings in their future, author and fan Zuzelo is determined to keep The Blind Dead alive (?) and kicking for horror buffs. His most recent work is ASCENSION OF THE BLIND DEAD, a limited edition chapbook that pits the "beardy blind beasts" as he calls them against Silvia Perschy, a myth-busting werewolf.
So, with all the monsters of cinema and literature to play with, why The Blind Dead?
"At the risk of sounding like a total tool," quips Zuzelo, "I would do anything to write something featuring these monsters. I love de Ossorio's work and the series has given me tons of enjoyment. I tried to make sure that it would be faithful to the films and keep the Templars alive and sacrificing."
For more information on ASCENSION and to read David's uniquely enthusiastic musings on trash cinema check out david-z.blogspot.com.