Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972, directed by Amando de Ossorio)
With guest reviewer Dominique Lamssies
JONATHAN RAAB: Unlike Zombie Lake and Inferno, I don’t believe I had heard of Tombs of the Blind Dead before, but it does have some imagery that is familiar. I’m sure I’ve seen the blind Templar zombies somewhere, maybe on a heavy metal or punk show flyer. This movie has that trashy, late-night monster-a-thon vibe to it, like you found it playing halfway through on some forgotten cable channel you didn’t know existed.
Speaking of TV, I didn’t realize until about halfway through my viewing that I was probably watching a censored version, as some of the comments under the video indicated it as such. There was still some gore and mild nudity in the beginning, so who knows. I’m not sure how much would be added by more of the cheap-looking gore effects.
DOMINIQUE LAMSSIES: I watched the full version. I don’t think I’ve actually seen the edited-down version. I’m one of those “but the director intended it to be watched THIS WAY!” people. Really, if you’ve seen Lord of the Rings, that’s where you’ve seen the Blind Dead before. Whether intentional or not, Peter Jackson pretty much lifted the design of the Black Rider Nazguls from this movie. Even the horses! I think watching the longer version is actually why I love it so much because the longer version, while punctuated by that gore (which I actually don’t think was so bad for the period), is very slow and there’s a lot of “look at all this Gothic stuff! How cool is this?” going on, which I’m all about.
This movie, while quite sleazy, and there are parts that annoy me as a female horror fan, actually exemplifies quite well why I adore Continental European Gothic films so much and how different they are.
JR: The castle compound is an amazing place to film, and looks great here. I also adored the graveyard scenes/shots, with rolling fog, odd tombstones, and goofy zombies emerging from their graves. Absolutely killer stuff.
I’m glad you brought up the sleazy aspects of the film, as this movie does not handle its female characters very well. That’s not to say that the men are competent or even sympathetic, but the very obvious boyfriend-wants-to-sleep-with-her-friend subplot and bizarre, inappropriate flirting and touching in the train scene really came across as gross and weird. There’s also a rape scene in the uncut version that I apparently missed, but frankly I don’t feel the need to see it, especially because the post-assault scene I did see was played as an awkward but consensual moment that is not at all important to the plot, the characters, or anyone else, for that matter.
But how to explain this movie’s plot? While her boyfriend is playing grabass (literally) with her friend in another car, our heroine decides to just… jump off the train in the middle of the Spanish (?) countryside. She wanders into a spooky old castle-monastery compound, decides to camp out there, and is bitten to death by the Templar zombies as the sun rises. Pretty straightforward stuff. It gets more bizarre from there, as her body is brought to the morgue and her horned-up boyfriend and friend identify the body. But the man showing them the body—was he the coroner’s assistant, or another cop? I can’t tell—behaves like a silent film actor doing a comedy routine with the dead bodies. It’s very odd.
DL: This movie is pretty basic: Dumb people stumble on town with some form of reanimated dead, blood ensues. Later movies fleshed out the backstory and the Eastern Knights themselves better. I actually don’t quite understand why Virginia, the first girl that got attacked, came back, but the scenes where she did were very cool and had this odd Frankenstein vibe to them. Almost like Armando de Ossorio (the director) watched Hammer’s Frankenstein Created Woman and thought, “chicks with their boobs almost hanging out, melted crayon blood… hold my beer!” And that fortress is a real place, the Monastario del Cerson, near Madrid, though I think the movie is supposed to take place on the Portugal/Spain border.
The morgue attendant was… something else. I feel like they were reaching for an Igor with that one. I also wonder if being a morgue attendant is really looked down on in some cultures (ours too, actually) so they only assume that mentally and physically deficient people would want or are worthy of doing it. Like the job itself is so inherently wrong, but necessary, so we give it to someone who isn’t employable in a “decent” capacity. But it seems like I’ve seen that same type of character in the same position in a lot of films.
JR: I actually really like the scenes with re-animated Virginia, especially the mannequin scene. There’s this ill-fitting subplot about a woman who makes mannequins who is somehow connected to our surviving leads, and Virginia shows up to kill her. It’s a legitimately spooky scene, with rows and rows of formless bodies arrayed in the dark, and the Virginia-zombie stalking the set. My guess is they had access to that warehouse and decided they couldn’t not use the mannequins for their horror movie.
DL: As for the use of sex in this movie, no, you did not need to see the rape. It is ugly. They, in no way shape or form, gloss over it or romanticise it as can sometimes happen in these movies. It’s bad, and it’s uncomfortable. And what’s worse, it actually takes place after Bette says, “no, I can’t, I have sex-related trauma,” and Pedro decides he’s going to “cure her of it.” I half-suspect that they put it in there so we would have someone in Pedro that we’re glad to see the Eastern Knights kill, but watching a rapist die doesn’t make a female viewer as happy as the rape not taking place at all.
But in the uncut version, the sexuality of the film gets weirder because it’s revealed on the train that Bette is a lesbian and she and Virginia had a fling in boarding school. Virginia jumps from the train after they talk about it and Virginia seems to be feeling guilty that she enjoyed the fling. That gives a different dimension to Roger and Bette’s relationship toward the end of the movie because, as you noted, he’s clearly horn-dogging for her, but he stops pushing and whenever anyone points out that he likes her, he rebuffs them, almost like he knows and just thinks she’s someone he wants in his life in some capacity, even if he can’t screw her. Which makes the beginning even weirder because Roger is clearly a skuzz bucket!
Now, this movie is cheap and skeezy, no doubt, but I also think there’s some well-hidden meaning here. I think it’s significant that the first person the Knights wake up and kill, even though she’s a girl inexplicably running around an abandoned ruin in her underwear (of course she is), is someone who is flouting a sexual norm.
It is impressed on us at every turn that the Templar zombies are evil and there’s nothing good about them. And the first thing they do is crush someone who is part of the changing sexual landscape. The Eastern Knights are a religious order that was tasked with saving Christianity as the Pope saw it and they got drunk with power and corrupted, but, as a church order, they still viewed themselves as having the moral high ground and thus were allowed to destroy people who didn’t fit in with their ideas.
One of the things we’re realizing in this day and age is that “degenerates” aren’t one-size-fits-all, and the people who point fingers at others are just as screwed up. Of course, this is also at the end of Franco’s Spain, so it’s possible that I’m seeing a religious critique when it was really intended as a Facism critique. That makes the sensationalism a little more understandable as Franco would have crushed these people if he suspected they were criticising him, so they filled the film with lots of boobs and Karo Syrup to hide it.
JR: Right, the Templars here are so obviously evil. They use the ankh rather than the cross as their symbol. I think the filmmakers were not directly criticizing the church, or if they were, they were playing it safe by making the villains those that had fallen away from the faith in favor of sorcery and satanism. Many horror movies of the 1970s and 80s are religiously and culturally conservative in their depictions of satanic evil, but that could just be a cover for a more contemporary critique that I’m not read in on.
DL: Another random aside, with all the above stuff bouncing around in my head, as I was watching this in preparation for this conversation, the flashback scene had a really strong KKK rally vibe to me. That’s not what the director would have intended, Spain had their own problems, they weren’t making movies about the KKK, but I saw it as an American.
JR: The KKK and that particular iconography are widely known, so it’s possible. The KKK was and is, in many ways, a secret society-occult organization, with rites and titles and masks and rituals.
We’ve spent some time rightly taking this film to task for a number of its tropes and choices, but at the end of it all I have to admit I really enjoyed this movie, as bad and trashy as it is. The atmosphere at the castle grounds and the design of the zombie-Templars—even and especially those random shots of rubber skeleton hands—is really arresting and nightmarish. The finale where they attack the train is legitimately gonzo and great, and there’s plenty of blood and rubber-masked monsters to go around. I’m definitely looking forward to checking out the sequels!
DL: I adore this movie, but in some respects I’m easy to please. Your dead people just got up again? I’m in! And you are right about one very important thing that I feel needs more emphasis, because there is nothing in this world that makes me happier than Skeleton Barbie Hands. Skeleton Barbie Hands are love and joy and all things bright and beautiful in this world and whatever else is going on right now, we can forever take comfort in the fact that this movie, and the Skeleton Barbie Hands in it, exist.
Seriously, I don’t know why I love those dumb little hands so much, but I do. And that’s a good way to sum up the fandom of this movie, I think!
Dominique Lamssies is a relapsed Goth who is obsessed with dead people in all their forms. She was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, but has a problem with itchy feet that has taken her to places such as New Orleans, Boston, Ukraine, and Japan. She believes in horror as anthropology and clothing with copious amounts of velvet. Her work can be found in Behold The Undead Of Dracula (Muzzleland Press) and Test Patterns: Creature Features (Planet X Publications), and Women In Horror among others. She is also head necromancer at The House Of Silent Graves Etsy shop which sells all manner of stuffed animals based on old horror movies, and has a blog, The University of Bizarre. She hopes her stories remind you of Mario Bava films and you find the monsters she makes sufficiently huggable. She hopes Saint Ed Wood blesses and keeps all of you.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.