The title refers to four films made in the early to mid 70s in Portugal and Spain featuring a posse of undead Templar knights who rise from their graves at night to feed on the blood of the living! Oh, and they’re blind too but they have very acute hearing. More like vampires than zombies…they can hear your heartbeat! Supposedly they’d learnt the secret of eternal life in the Orient sometime in the middle ages and brought it back with them. Mainly it entailed sacrificing young maidens and drinking their blood (and eating their heart – yuck!). The Templars are easily the best thing in these films and their appearance is suitably horrifying. They are severely desiccated skeletal bearded figures in unspeakably mouldy hoods. They ride undead steeds too though there’s no footage of them rising from the grave so I’m not sure where they come from.
All four films are fairly standalone in that they don’t continue where the former film left off but all contain the same themes, the titular blind dead and more or less the same rules. As such I’ve elected to cover them in one article. The full DVD boxed set is a bit of a rarity these days. I got it in a sale back in 2006 for £8 but the last time I checked Amazon it was £100! I don’t reckon it is worth that much but individually you can get them for about the £20 mark. The only things you miss out on are a bonus documentary about the man behind the knights Amando de Ossorio and a really informative booklet.
I’d wanted to see them ever since I caught a glimpse of a still and film poster in a book called ‘Horror Movies’ by Alan G. Frank, a long out of print book from the early 70s that contains so many cool images from old horror movies from the birth of film right up until the 70s. I made it my mission at that young age to see all those films – I still haven’t managed it but I’m getting there. My father managed to get me a copy of the first film ‘Tombs of the Blind Dead’ on VHS for my 14th birthday. Not my strangest request it has to be said. When I asked for ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) one year he choked at the £14 price tag!
‘Tombs of the Blind Dead’ (1972)
The first one is the one I’ve seen the most and is probably my favourite. We follow a young woman who has strayed from the beaten track and stumbled upon the ruins of Berzano, a creepy village where the Templars are buried and definitely not a good place to stay the night. Well she does and subsequently pays the ultimate price. Her body is discovered near a railway track next morning and her friends follow the trail to discover what happened.
It’s by no means perfect but certainly does possess an atmosphere of its own helped greatly by the stunningly haunting local colour and the avant-garde inspired doom-laden score by Anton Garcia Abril. Speaking of the score actually, it reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith’s music for the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968). Amusingly there is another ape connection to this film. Apparently the American distributor at the time elected to recut the film and attempted to sell it as ‘Revenge from Planet Ape’ – a cheap shot at cashing in on the aforementioned series. It sounds ridiculous but strangely I can see where they were coming from. There is something vaguely apelike about their appearance. Albeit damned dirty dead vengeful bloodthirsty apes. The knights seem to exist out of time when they are in action. They have a flickery dreamlike slowness to them and they’re pretty relentless in pursuit of prospective victims, who pretty much all end up actual victims. There isn’t a huge amount of gore but the scenes that do contain it make up for that. The flashback sequence to them in their heyday for example (which happens in all 4 films) features plenty of blood and close-ups of gnawing and slicing of flesh. As part of the ritual they cut out a young maiden’s heart and then devour it between them. Yum yum!
I haven’t seen a lot of Spanish horror I must confess. The only other one I can recall seeing is ‘Horror Express’ (1972) which is a rather good little film starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (and for some reason Telly Savalas). Very eerie, if you haven’t seen it I recommend it. Apparently the brief Spanish horror boom fizzled out in the mid 70s and never recovered. The Italian one however did by making umpteen zombie films of varied artistic merit into late 80s.
The one scene I could do without features an attempt at ‘sexing it up’ by having one of the aggressive male characters forcing himself upon our distressed leading lady. That really annoyed me. Not as random as the rape scene Veronica Carlson had to endure with Peter Cushing in ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed!’ (1969) but still grating. Sadly a similar scene happens in the sequel too – it even features the same actor! The women in general tend to get a raw deal in these films. Casual misogyny rears it’s head throughout the series and it’s definitely one of the factors that dates the films. Another concept that goes unexplored in the other three films is that the first victim in ‘Tombs’ comes back from the dead and has to be fought off after having munched on the morgue attendant. Either they forgot or just decided that it complicated matters further down the line. She was easily vanquished anyway. They set fire to her in a mannequin workshop in one of the films tenser sequences. Very Bava-esque actually! The cliffhanger ending is a tad frustrating too given that that it wasn’t directly followed up. The knights board a train to civilisation and hack all the passengers to death in the process. The shot of a blood soaked child clinging to life in its dead parents lap stayed with me for many years. At the end of our recent viewing of this film my wife remarked that it was depressing. I suppose it is now I come to think of it. The unique atmosphere the film possesses is rather funereal to say the least but I seem to be drawn to that sort of thing. Just as well there are sequels to get my teeth into Templar style!
‘Return of the Evil Dead’ (1973)
In some territories it’s called ‘Return of the Blind Dead’ which to be honest I prefer. It’s only going to confuse fans of Ash Williams and his Deadite slaying adventures. Different story, this time set in an occupied historic village whose inhabitants centuries before had executed the Templars for the atrocities they committed. We join them as they prepare to celebrate the anniversary of that event. Unbeknownst to the locals the resident loony decided to resurrect the Templars by sacrificing some hapless girl in their honour. They duly rise up (reusing a lot of footage from the previous film) and proceed to massacre the village. A few survivors manage to hole up in a church s they can plot their next move and bicker amongst themselves. Very ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) which as it turns out was a major inspiration for ‘Tombs’. It’s not too bad really, there’s a lot more action in this one and it has several ‘shout at the screen moments’; Run!! What are you doing?? Shoot them in the Head!! Some good gory moments as well including a satisfying decapitation (I won’t tell you who). It also has a rather tense scene where a corrupt local official uses a young girl as a diversion whilst trying to break out to get to a car outside that it surrounded by the Blind Dead. It even lets some of the characters live at the conclusion as the knights in this film become inactive in the cold light of dawn. The three of them walk off into the sunrise to find a new life somewhere else.
‘The Ghost Galleon’ (1974)
This one surprised me when I eventually got around to seeing it as it tries something different with admittedly varying degrees of success. This time around the knights are interred in the bowels of a creaking derelict ghost ship adrift in some twilight dimension adjacent to ours. It’s a creepy and misty realm indeed! Two models stranded at sea in a failed publicity stunt stumble into it and succumb to the blood lust of the Templars. A search party comes looking for them and also fall victim to them. The low budget is especially apparent in this entry, in particular the awful model shots. There is also some bad bad acting in evidence here and another unnecessary almost sex scene. It more than makes up for these problems in atmosphere though and sheer strength of will. Another bleak ending too where there really is no escape from the slow moving but persistent Blind Dead. It turns out that sealing them in their coffins and throwing them overboard does not stop them!
I’ve read some really bad reviews of this one in the past but I rather enjoyed it. Of the four it’s probably the least but only by the narrowest of margins.
‘Night of the Seagulls’ (1975)
The last of the four is actually pretty decent too whenever the knights are around. A doctor takes up his new position in a remote crumbling coastal village with his wife and discovers strange goings on down at the beach at night. This time the knights emerge from a creepy monastery of sorts for seven consecutive nights every seven years to claim some young maidens tied to a rock ‘Kraken style’. It’s eerily effective and like the other films contains some memorable imagery. One of my favourite things is when the knights have finished with their offerings a cast of crabs scuttle into shot to feast on the corpses.
The seagulls of the title turn out to be the souls of the young maidens from down the years returning to haunt the village at night with their squawking and wailing. I didn’t really find the main characters too annoying this time around which was nice. The indigenous population were your stereotypical hostile to outsiders bunch which did grate after a while. In the end it’s hard to discern who was worse – the Blind Dead or the villagers for being so complicit over the many generations in continually killing their own when they could have rose up and destroyed the undead knights. What a bunch of cretins!
Pros; Atmosphere, intriguingly different monsters
Cons; Variable acting, dialogue and plotting
Scores – Tombs 8/10, Return 7/10, Ghost 6/10, Night 7/10
Scene Highlight – Any scene involving the titular Blind Dead and their glacial but relentless pursuit of victims