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Skeleton Crew: The Blind Dead Movies

  Spain in the nineteen-seventies was still labouring under the fascist rule of General Franco, but even there, as with other regions of the world, a loosening of censorship was being felt in the nation's cinema. As with Italy, the grim nature of the political state was influencing the pop culture, leaving things with a distinct edge, so while on television the biggest entertainment was Uno Dos Tres, the variety game show that became 321 when adapted in Britain, which even in its fluffier demeanour liked to include barbed comments about the ruling classes, at the movies an increase in sex and violence began to be seen, sometimes simultaneously. One such successful example of these new trends was summed up in Amando de Ossorio's Blind Dead series, a set of four horror stories that were patently inspired by the worldwide success of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which started the zombie craze that continues to this day.

De Ossorio was something of a cinematic jack of all trades, having dabbled in various aspects of the business before opting for direction and writing of exploitation efforts as his speciality. Given there was a healthy appetite across many territories for such productions, it's little wonder that the first of his Blind Dead series was a major hit, one of a number of seventies projects that spun their own variation on the zombie theme. The villains here were not necessarily mindless, shuffling monsters, however, as they had a certain ingenuity that in spite of their slow pace (even the horses they rode in the first instalment were shot in slow motion, to emphasise their supernatural quality), though precisely what was going on in their heads remained a mystery. Well, aside from "Get blood, drink blood, repeat for eternal life" which we are told in flashback form was their main impetus, being the revived corpses of thirteenth century religious knights who performed a Satanic rite to ensure their continual return to the land of the living.

That rite involved torturing an unfortunate virgin and, yes, lapping at her wounds which apparently is all you need to keep on going in that cinematic universe, though it did not prevent the authorities who were unsympathetic to how these supposed noblemen had bastardised the tenets of their order from arresting them and putting them to death. Strung up, their eyes were pecked out by crows, hence the blindness, though how long eyes would last from the thirteenth century to the twentieth was a point to be disputed. What we did know was they were now more or less skeletal, as evinced by the bony arms and hands sticking out of their grimy robes, not that this stemmed their thirst for the red stuff, and they did move very slowly, as did the initial movie most popularly known as Tombs of the Blind Dead, or originally La noche del terror ciego in Spanish. Just because it took its time didn't mean that was a drawback, for de Ossorio preferred to concentrate on accumulating an atmosphere of dread that he punctuated with shocks as a pay-off.

The main characters were the trio of Bette (Lone Fleming), her friend Virginia (Maria Elena Arpon), and Virginia's not quite boyfriend Roger (Cesar Burner) who nevertheless she feels jealousy about when he starts having innocent fun with Bette. That in flashback we have seen that the two ladies got intimate at boarding school explains why Virginia is most uncomfortable in Bette’s presence, so she jumps off the slow-moving train they are travelling to a holiday on and ventures out into the picturesque countryside to find somewhere to camp for the night. Just her luck, she ends up at the undead knights' monastery where they rise from their graves to start their terror afresh, and one aspect revealed late on was a genuine item of nightmarish ingenuity when they can track their victims by the sound of their pounding heartbeats. Throw in various bits and pieces that were edited out of some prints such as a rape or the gorier effects, and audiences lapped this formula up like a parched, blind, zombie knight and quick off the mark de Ossorio made sure there were follow-ups to cash in, er, I mean, extend his considerable artistic vision.

Come 1973, a fresh production proved less a sequel, however, and more a variation on the themes of the first one. Called Return of the Evil Dead in its English language dub, though originally it was El ataque de los muertos sin ojos in Spanish, some have speculated that this may be where Sam Raimi got the idea for calling his breakthrough shocker The Evil Dead seeing as how it was not the first title to reference that particular phrase. Whatever the truth, de Ossorio was back both reinventing his premise and sticking to the formula he had devised, as we return to the location of the Blind Dead, who are intended to be revived Knights Templar, that faction of religious warriors who became the source of a lot of conspiracy theories over the following decades. Here their exact beliefs were not as important as presenting them as a blood-drinking threat to the characters, though they remained blind as we watch the opening which shows them having their eyes burned out with torches by villagers irate at their antics.

Not quite the same as the origin from Tombs…, but similar enough to make it clear that we were in the same territory, as if the reuse of some of the footage from the initial instalment was not enough. If in that episode we were witness to the innocent being picked off by the ghouls, then here de Ossorio had evidently taken a bleaker view of humanity as not one character aside from the little girl could be termed entirely blameless. Even the central couple, Italian import Tony Kendall (playing an American, called Jack of course) and Esperanza Roy (as a local), had barely been introduced before they were having sex on the consecrated ground of the cathedral, which marked them out as irresponsible at best, though they were interrupted by resident weirdo Murdo (Jose Canalejas, think Igor from Frankenstein or Torgo from Manos, the Hands of Fate) before they actually get down to business. Though Murdo is first seen getting beaten up by a bunch of kids, he is far from undeserving of such shunning either, for it is he who sets the wheels of reviving the undead in motion thanks to recreating their ancient rites, with de rigueur sacrifice of hapless lady.

Though atmosphere was just as important in this entry, there were signs the director had been asked to pick up the pace, so a long section of the middle transformed Return of the Evil Dead into more or less an action film as the villagers battle the sword-wielding knights who try to cut them down while mounted on equally zombie-like horses. There was even a car chase (or a car and horses chase), which certainly made things a lot more kinetic, but sacrificed, no, not a virgin but the strong sense of dread of the first in favour of a runaround with gore. Nevertheless, it did end with the survivors stuck in the cathedral as the knights laid siege to them, proving Romero remained uppermost in his mind as an example to follow for these efforts. Just as Night of the Living Dead pioneered the use of bloodthirsty shocks, so this series was deploying its own brand of death, usually with victims speared by sharp objects, often with rubbery prosthetics to enable a more convincing injury, thought that said they were still rather fake-looking by the standards of what was just around the corner in special effects makeup developments.

The gore was not quite so extensive in the third of the series, The Ghost Galleon, or El buque maldito as it was initially, though Horror of the Zombies was a fairly prevalent title as well. But then, if anything the budget was even tighter, with most of it apparently going on renting the sailing ship set, assuming de Ossorio did not have the thing made himself, but if he did whichever was the explanation he looked to be determined to get is money's worth out of it. Yes, it was a seafaring escapade for the hooded undead this time as they were discovered not on horseback for a change, but kept in the cargo hold of the titular galleon which sails the seven seas like the Mary Celeste crossed with The Flying Dutchman. Of course, this presumably meant victims were harder to come by in light of the fact that not many small boats would be in the vicinity to go and investigate - small boats seem to be a must when actually clapping eyes on the vessel, as the larger ones apparently float on by regardless of whether there was a ghost ship present or not.

That said, we did have to spend quite a long time before the stars of the show appeared, as most of the first half hour at least was taken up with assembling the victims into a position where they could, well, be victimised. The plot had it that a couple of fashion models had been despatched to a shipping lane in the Atlantic Ocean so they could publicise the speedboat they had been hired to advertise when they were picked up, but wouldn't you know it, the first object that appears is the galleon that contains the Blind Dead, all handily packed away in crates. Though not for long - OK, actually it is for long, as I say they make their presence felt about a third of the way in, so we are in the company of the two models who predictably disappear when they board the apparently abandoned ship, which for all the cost cutting is shown off in an admirably spooky set of scenes. Meanwhile, a thriller-like set-up sees the orchestrators of the stunt try to contact their employees over the radio, and when they don't hear from them they opt to embark on a voyage to their location to stage a rescue, or find out what happened to their expensive publicity.

The thriller aspect arrived when one of the model's friends, also a model, tries to expose this subterfuge and is effectively held prisoner by the heavies of the rich businessman (Jack Taylor) behind all this, who is in cahoots with the photographer (Maria Perschy), meaning every one of them plus a professor who doesn't sound particularly scientific and a heavy for muscle wind up on the galleon too. Only the models are nowhere to be seen having been lured down below deck presumably to have their blood drained by what are called the Knights Templar for the first time in this series, though we had to assume that's who they were anyway. We also had to assume that there was a different set of circumstances for their origins yet again to explain their embrace of a life (or an undeath) on the ocean wave, but if you had persevered with this so far you would take that in your stride. Mostly this concentrated on the mood, though there was one nasty setpiece where one character had her throat ripped out to prevent her screaming and alerting her associates, somewhat ruined in the English language dub which had her screaming all the way down. Nevertheless, that was enough to justify a third entry - but what about the fourth?

For some horror fans Night of the Seagulls (otherwise known as La noche de las gaviotas) was not only the best sequel, but the best entry in the whole series. Yet again de Ossorio pressed a reset button of some form or other as we had one last origin sequence, this at the start of the film that accompanied by the by then well-worn theme tune of doomladen male choir looks to be setting off the story in a Hammer style as two travellers of old, recently married, are seeking a place to stay for the night but are unlucky enough to meet the Knights, here in their pre-walking corpse form. One sacrifice late, proving once more that this director was overfond of the image of a woman getting her clothes ripped open and her heart pulled from her naked chest because here it was for the third time, though distractingly the victim this instance had some decidedly un-thirteenth century breast implants, and we jumped forward to the present day (for 1975) where a doctor (Victor Petit) and his wife (Maria Kosty) have arrived in a small village which may well be the place we saw those travellers meet a sticky end.

Tales of insular locals treating newcomers as unwelcome outsiders are ten a penny, in life as well as fiction, but this lot take the biscuit, as you may have understood a medical practitioner would be essential to any community, especially one so isolated, but these citizens can barely bring themselves to look in the couple's general direction. The doctor they are replacing won't say much either, but he does speak and implores them to get away as soon as possible, or at least never go out after dark if they insist on staying, which baffles the new doc but confirms all the creepy sense of foreboding that his wife is enduring. You could regard this as a set-up for the billionth reprise of Night of the Living Dead, but somehow de Ossorio conjured up an appreciably different premise for each of these yarns, and in this instance his inspiration was Sam Peckinpah. No, the Blind Dead didn't restage The Wild Bunch with their horsemanship skills, it was a Straw Dogs construction we were treated to, only without the rape aspect, which may have been unexpected considering the director's other works in this line, with a "village idiot" (another recurring character type) kept safe by the doctor in his house by the shore.

What this lot want, the villagers and the undead, is sacrifices, and as the heroes and heroines assemble in their soon to be under siege cottage there are rituals being held where some poor soul, you guessed it, another young woman, is chained to a large rock on the beach, clothes ripped open, the works. Quite why this has to happen so often was a mystery since you'd think there would be hardly anyone left in the community before long, but it did give rise to a collection of atmospheric visuals that were this filmmaker's forte, the beach processions in particular an eerie sight as the good guys look on in mounting fear. If it ended as you would expect, more or less, then at least they had picked up the pace this time without abandoning the grotty and unsettling power of its shocks and setpieces, but was it the best of the series? If not, what was? There was a valid opinion that the first instalment put such an original spin on the zombie genre that it was the best, though others would complain it was too slow and de Ossorio had more of a handle on his concepts in later instalments; indeed, if he had continued (there was Cross of the Devil, a John Gilling-directed 1975 effort that spuriously claimed to be part of the series) it would have been interesting to see where he could have gone. Maybe a quartet of idiosyncratic chillers was enough.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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