Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio, 1971)

In the eighth of twelve posts, film critic Neil Fulwood flies us across the globe to Spain in search of the ultimate zombie movie…

Welcome to Spain, home of sun, sand, sea, sangria … and, if you drag yourself off the beach and a bit further inland, a landscape steeped in history, myth and bloodshed. Tombs of the Blind Dead is set near the Spanish/Portugese border; the action takes place around two specific locations: the ruins of a Templar monastery and a small village where everything is insular, the locals are tight-lipped and outsiders aren’t exactly welcome. Writer/director Amando de Ossorio exploits these settings to the max, creating a film that restlessly establishes its own mythology while wholeheartedly embracing the tenets of low-budget exploitation cinema.

Former college friends Betty (Lone Fleming) and Virginia (Maria Elena Arpon) bump into each other on holiday and decide to take a trip into the countryside together. Virginia, troubled by recollections of the fling she had with Betty back in college, is further aggravated by Betty’s flirtation with her new boyfriend Roger (Cesar Burner). Cutting loose, she finds herself in the aforementioned monastery. Here she falls foul of the resurrected corpses of a few dozen Templar knights and the whole BFF betrayal thing really doesn’t matter much anymore.

Next day, Betty and Roger, thoroughly guilt-ridden, visit the ruins to try to find her. They stumble, instead, on a couple of police officers and a murder enquiry. When Maria’s recovered body reanimates, the trail leads them to academic Professor Candal (Francisco Sanz) who fills them in on the legend of the Knights Templar. This is where Tombs of the Blind Dead really comes into its own. Made just three years after George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, which posits some business with a comet as the reason for its plague of zombies, Tombs of the Blind Dead is one of the final entries in the subgenre to discuss voodoo as a means of returning the dead to life. Post-Romero, the trend has been for MacGuffin-style explanations (a virus or some form of contamination) or no explanation at all. In Rammbock or La Horde, for instance, the zombie apocalypse just happens.

De Ossorio, however, reaches back into a past shrouded with mystery and superstition. The Knights Templar were a Christian military order in the middle ages who forged a reputation as warriors during the Crusades. In Tombs of the Blind Dead, they return from the Orient with a taste for the occult and an obsession with eternal life. Their Dennis Wheatley-type shenanigans are interrupted by an angry torch-bearing mob, they’re strung up and left to die. Birds peck out their eyes.

I can only imagine the script conference! “Hey, let’s make a zombie film.”  “Great idea! How about zombie Knights Templar?”  “Love it! We can have them put to death because they were carrying off virgins and drinking their blood.”  “Hey, fellas. How about this? Let’s make them blind and they only know where their victims are because of their screams.” The awed silence that must have met this last suggestion was probably enough to stop a visually-challenged zombie in its shuffling tracks.

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