Let's briefly review the history of the zombie film, shall we?

Sometime in the early 1930s, during the period when American studios were first really playing around in the horror movie sandbox, some smart person stumbled across the Haitian Vodou religion, and particularly a fairly minor component of that tradition, the idea of a sorcerer using his powers to reanimate dead bodies - zombies, though that phrase is at best an Anglicisation - and use them as his personal army or slaves, or what have you. By the standards of 1930s horror cinema, the idea of living corpses was a pretty creepy thing to consider, and in 1932, the world witnessed the release of what is typically considered the first zombie movie: the Halperin brothers' White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi.

For many years, all zombie movies hewed to broadly the same idea: the zombies themselves are frightening only because they are animate corpses, and the danger in the film is due solely to the malevolent sorcerer controlling them. These films were almost exclusively set in the Caribbean, invariably centering on incredulous white people fighting off the wicked brown people who wanted them dead. All this changed violently - literally and figuratively - in 1968, when another smart person named George A. Romero made a low-budget independent horror movie titled Night of the Living Dead. Although the word "zombie" never once appear in Romero's screenplay, a reanimated corpse is a reanimated corpse, and the Vodou connection disappeared instantly, replaced by the modern conception of a zombie as a mysteriously undead being whose driving purpose is to consume human flesh.

Romero's film inspired nearly uncountable imitators (it is said that zombie films are the most common kind of micro-budget, home brew horror movie), particular his 1978 Dawn of the Dead, which single-handedly launched a torrent of knock-offs produced by European genre hacks in Italy, Spain and France. Tradition holds that the contemporary zombie movie is thus entirely a post-'79 beast, but in this way, as is often the case, tradition is wrong. Though it is true that the massive wave of zombie films following Dawn's European release under the title Zombi was a watershed moment for the subgenre, the preceding ten years did have their fair share of American, Canadian, and European films about gutmunching revenants. One of the first of these - in fact, as far as I have been able to determine, the very first cannibal zombie movie released after Romero - was a 1971 Spanish-Portuguese co-production, a strange thing indeed given the reputation of Spain's horror cinema as being almost completely reactive to Italy's. That film is best-known in English as Tombs of the Blind Dead, though its list of alternate titles is quite staggering; its first American release, in a significantly reduced cut, was as The Blind Dead. Happily for those of us in the DVD Age, the film is quite easy to find in its untouched Spanish version, La noche del terror ciego [The Night of the Blind Terror], and this uncut edit is without question the best way to see it.

It bears mentioning that the film's writer-director, Amando de Ossorio, took great pains to explain that Tombs was not a "zombie" film; it was a film about supernatural mummies, or some such. Like I said, a reanimated corpse is a reanimated corpse, and history has failed to take Ossorio at his word. I imagine that his chief reluctance to use the Z-word wasn't because of his commitment to semantics, though, but to resist the tendency to lump his movie in with the constant stream of unabashed zombie films that were vomited forth a mere decade later. And in this respect, I am willing to agree with Ossorio, for while nearly all of the Italian zombie films were one shade of awful or another, Tombs is a good film, even a great one: one of the highlights of 1970s Spanish cinema and among the very best examples of its oft-indefensible genre.

Tombs is set in Portugal, where people who are probably American, to judge by their names, meet by chance one day: Elizabeth "Bet" Turner (Lone Fleming), who owns a mannequin shop in Lisbon, her college roommate Virginia White (María Elena Arpón), and Virginia's brand-new boyfriend Roger Whelan (César Burner). Roger instantly takes a shine to Bet, and insists she join him and Virginia on their trip to the countryside, and while neither woman is terribly keen on this idea, he eventually gets her way. On the trip, Roger's advances become quite rude enough to send Virginia running, and when Bet tries to comfort her, we learn in a flashback that the girls had a romantic fling of their own back in college; indeed, Viriginia seems a sight more upset to lose Bet than to lose Roger, and Bet herself is plainly comfortable enough in her own sexuality to view Roger as a pest and a lout. Her assurances do no good, and Virginia jumps off the train and runs off into the countryside; when Roger and Bet try to stop the train, the aged conductor and his son refuse to so much as slow down. It seems there's something terrifying in those hills.

It is to be found, Virginia soon learns, in the ruined medieval town of Berzano. This is one of those extremely special places in the world that looks just fucking evil, no matter how much sunshine you through at it. And when Virginia arrives, there's not much daylight left, so even though it's against her better judgment, she decides to find some place to bed down for the evening. Creepy enough, but things get much creepier when, in the dead of night, she starts to hear some kind of chanting, and she notices steam rising out of the small graveyard in the center of town - a graveyard marked not by crosses, but Egyptian ankhs. The steam is followed in short order by skeletal cadavers dressed in tattered garb, who shuffle slowly after Virginia - though not so slowly that she can escape, particularly once she mounts one of their (zombiefied?) horses and proves to be a pretty lousy equestrian.

And this is all the more plot I will recap, although like all reviewers of the film, I'll give away the secret (more or less spoiled by the title) of the undead beings. Back in the 14th Century, there was a group of Templars who brought back certain rite from their time in the Middle East, during the Crusades - rites that would give them eternal life, if they but sacrificed virgins, drank her blood, and performed rituals to an unstated black god. When they were found out (as the wholesale slaughter of a region's virgins will tend to find you out), the local authorities hanged them in the center of Berzano, until their eyes had been plucked out by the crows. Unfortunately, the rites worked, or at least well enough so that the Templars came back to life, albeit without eyes; and thus the Blind Dead we were promised.

Undoubtedly, the single element of Tombs and its sequels that sets them well and truly above their countless cousins is Ossorio's representation of the undead Templars - a vision never copied in all the many films that followed, to my knowledge. Whereas most post-Romero zombies are mouldering bodies with rotten flesh that still look recognisably human (and are played by actors in make-up), the Templars are literally nothing but skin and bones, exactly the kind of dessicated shells that you'd expect a mummified corpse from 650 years ago to resemble. The dummies Ossorio used are convincing enough that I'd be entirely willing to believe that he used honest-to-God cadavers in filming.

It's not just the visuals that set these zombies apart; the forthright supernatural explanation for their existence is fairly unusual, and their obvious intentionality and cunning is even rarer. These aren't just hungry animals, they are hunters, looking for blood to feed their eternal unlife. And the marvelous trick of making them blind, that's just a stroke of genius. When the shambling undead are coming your way, like in most zombie pictures, well, it's not hard to outrun them. That's why Romero and his followers always trotted out the idea that it was the incompetence and venality of the living that doomed them, not the skill of the zombies. But the blind dead, they are crafty bastards, who very much count on their pry trying to evade them. Being sightless, they home in on sound, and they've had plenty of time in the centuries to sharpen their sense of hearing; and you know, you just can't stop yourself from making noise, as is discovered by the only survivor of the climactic attack in one of the film's showstopping moments: the mere sound of a human heartbeat is enough to attract the Templars. And when you're surrounded by murderous ghouls, your heart is likely beating quite fast.

It helps matters a great deal that Ossorio is a tremendously gifted visual stylist, and that his cinematographer, Pablo Ripoll, is apparently a genius; Tombs of the Blind Dead boasts some of the most brilliant atmospheric visuals of any '70s horror film I've watched. Whatever ruin the filmmakers picked to portray Berzano, it was worth the effort; this is one of the most menacing sets ever, far more threatening than most conspicuously-designed soundstages. Photographed during the day so as to take advantage of the deep shadows that seem to crop up everywhere, the town is even more moody and terrifying at night, particularly during some flat-out brilliant day-for-night shots that aren't "convincing", necessarily, but are exactly right to make the movie seem that much more creepy and uncanny.

The scenes outside of Berzano aren't too shabby themselves. There's a chase set in Bet's mannequin shop that is quite great, up to anything Dario Argento ever imagined putting into a movie; the morgue we see, with its ubiquitous Creepy Morgue Attendant, looks normal but slightly "off", perhaps because it doesn't have as many props as we'd expect.

It all comes back to the Templars, though, and the stunning visuals that Ossorio ties to them. There is a particular shot (absent in the English re-edit) of a young girl, cradled in her dead mother's arms, covered in her mother's blood, that is tremendously upsetting and powerful, as much as any such moment in any zombie film I can think of (its closest analogue may be the nightmarish scene of the little girl zombie killing her dad in Night of the Living Dead). Really, the whole of the final sequence is both brutal and yet abstracted enough to propel Ossorio to the top tier of European horror directors all by its lonesome.

The film is not, of course, flawless; like just about every other genre film made on that continent in that time period, the plot is too flimsy to withstand even a slight breeze of scrutiny (there's a whole entire subplot involving Virginia's ultimate fate that is of nearly no value to the story whatsoever), and most of the characters are die-cut from cardboard, although Bet is surely a more rounded figure than we often see in these films, and reasonably well performed. But honestly, no sane person goes into a film like this for the story. They go for the atmosphere, the terror, and the zombies, and all three of those things are in peak form here. As the kick-off to the European zombie film, Tombs is just about the finest example of the form that I have ever seen.

Reviews in this series
Tombs of the Blind Dead
Return of the Evil Dead
The Ghost Galleon
Night of the Seagulls