Known in Italian as Cinque tombe per un medium, and by the alternate drive-in title of Cemetery of the Living Dead, this stands along with Giuseppe Vari’s War of the Zombies (1964) as one of the forerunners of the Italian zombie genre. We open as a man fleeing into the night is stomped to death by his own horse, complete with close-ups on his bloody eyeball. The incident is never referred to again since, typically for the period, this scene was shot solely to give American drive-in audiences a reason to stay in their seats.
The actual plot begins with lawyer Albert Kobac (Walter Brandi) summoned to the creepy castle of the late Dr. Jeronimus Hauff. His beautiful daughter Corrine (Mirella Maravidi) maintains her father dabbled in occultism, something strenuously denied by her stepmother Cleo Hauff (Barbara Steele). A string of mysterious deaths occur throughout the local village until Kobac eventually discovers the good doctor is wreaking revenge on his betrayers from beyond the grave.
Pupillo, who made the loopy Bloody Pit of Horror (1965) that same year, was unhappy with the finished film and let producer Ralph Zucker assume directorial credit on English language prints. But the film is far from bad and quite arresting in parts: Dr. Hauff’s voice croaking on a phonograph record; the unsettling image of flowers slowly wilting in glass bowl; and the eerily beautiful children’s lullaby that clues the heroes how to survive the horror (“Remember the water will save you. This warning’s for you!”). Pupillo undercuts the eerie mood with chattering narration from his dopey hero (even after we see Hauff’s empty grave, Kobac is compelled to spell things out: “The grave is empty.” Well, duh!) and seems preoccupied with composing cheesecake shots (Maravidi nude in silhouette behind a screen; Steele reflected naked in a bathroom mirror), but stages a host of striking set-pieces with great gusto.
The most harrowing scene has crippled conspirator Stinel (Ennio Balbo) impale himself on a sword rather than face the vengeful dead. A rotting hand clutches at the corpse before guts spill out from his lifeless body. Steele’s romantic scene is surprisingly sensual interlude wherein the camera segues from the couple’s passionate lovemaking to a mural swirling above their bed. This marks an early cinematography credit for Carlo Di Palma who worked for Michelangelo Antonioni and Woody Allen. His luxuriant, velvety monochrome photography draws a certain dread from the nightmarish forest of gnarled black trees and the cobwebbed crypt where manservant Kurt (Luciano Pigozzi) soliloquises to his dead master. Florid touches like the thunderclap that happens whenever someone mentions Hauff by name (a gag Mel Brooks repeated in Young Frankenstein (1974)) and the admittedly cheesy dubbing stray close to camp, while the revenge angle flounders when innocents like the young maid (Tilde Till) and friendly doctor (Alfredo Rizzo) become targets. But the finale is wonderful: clocks come alive counting down to the hour of vengeance; severed hands start twitching; hearts in jars start beating; zombies crawl out of open graves and claws clutch at our fleeing heroes. End credits claiming this was based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe should be taken with a pinch of salt.