The 1970s were arguably the golden age of the European horror film. So many filmmakers - among them Jean Rollin, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Paul Naschy and Jesús Franco - came to prominence during this decade that it boggles the mind. Of the many classic films released in this period, Amando de Ossorio's 1971 Spanish horror film Tombs of the Blind Dead (La Noche del Terror Ciego, or Night of Blind Terror) is for me one of the absolute best. Sometimes referred to as a zombie film, it's really more of a mummified, devil-worshipping vampire film, but whatever you choose to call it, it's a strikingly original work of horror, and over forty years later, it still retains its power to disturb and unsettle the viewer.
The Blind Dead of the film's title are the undead Knights Templar, a group of warriors who returned from the Crusades with a newfound appreciation for the black arts (somehow, I don't think that was the idea behind the whole campaign). After terrorizing the countryside with their bloody sacrificial rites, they were captured, put to death and hung from a tree, where their eyes were eaten by birds. Hundreds of years later, they rise from their fog-shrouded tombs as dessicated, skeletal corpses to begin their reign of evil once more. Having no eyes, they track their victims by sound.
The film introduces us to Betty (Lone Fleming) and Virginia (María Elena Arpón), two young women who went to boarding school together and who bump into one another at a seaside resort. Virginia is there with her sort-of-boyfriend Roger (César Burner), who quickly takes an obvious shine to Betty. Virginia is clearly jealous of the two, although as it turns out, she and Betty had a fling back in school, and Virginia still carries a torch for her. Roger invites Betty along on a train holiday he and Virginia had planned, but having had enough his and Betty's flirtations, Virginia hops off the train in the middle of nowhere and sets out on her own. She arrives at Berzano, an eerie, ruined monastery, and decides to camp out there for the night. Unlucklily for her, it's the burial ground of the Templars, and they rise up in the middle of the night and slaughter her, feasting on her blood.
Concerned about Virginia (but apparently not enough to have jumped off the train after her), Roger and Betty rent some horses from their hotel and ride back to Berzano in the morning. There, they meet the police, who inform them of Virginia's brutal murder, which is attributed to a local gang of smugglers. Shocked and saddened, they head home, but they're determined to find out what really happened, and they return to the area surrounding Berzano to investigate further. They meet up with the smugglers and prevail upon two of them to accompany them to Berzano, not the wisest choice as it turns out. They turn out to be not the nicest people, and conflict erupts, but soon the Templars rise again, and everyone but Betty is killed. Half-crazed, she manages to escape on the passing train, but the knights hop on board and slaughter the rest of the passengers (including, audaciously, a small child in her mother's arms). At the film's climax, the Templars make their way to a suburban train station, where they wreak havoc on the unsuspecting commuters (and, we are to assume, the world).
Let's be honest: much of the time, Tombs of the Blind Dead looks like what it is - a low-budget horror film from the early 1970s. On the surface, it often seems painfully dated. Nevertheless, the film gets under my skin for a variety of reasons, chief among them the sinister score by renowned composer Antón García Abril. Abril's acclaimed soundtrack is a revelation, avoiding the musical clichés of the era in favor of an atonal, droning mélange of piano, percussion and organ, topped off with spine-chilling Gregorian-style chanting and random shrieks and groans. It's deeply unsettling to say the least, and it cloaks the film in a suffocating, unearthly atmosphere.
Another thing that makes the film work is the Templars themselves. Although they're clearly stunt performers wearing basically immovable masks, their vacant eye sockets, wispy beards, bony claws and grimy robes are truly creepy to behold. As they inexorably close in on their next victim, it never fails to send a chill up my spine. It's a cliché in horror films to have the slow-moving monsters always catch up to the running victims, but it makes a weird kind of sense in Tombs of the Blind Dead. The Templars actually ride (dead) horses in pursuit of their prey, but de Ossorio films these scenes in slow motion, making it seem like time itself is being warped by the supernatural influence of the dead knights. (Peter Jackson had to have been influenced by these scenes when he filmed the Ringwraiths' pursuit of Arwen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.) I also can't say enough about the decrepit monastery of Cercon outside of Madrid, which stands in for the fictional location of Berzano in the film. This has to be, hands down, one of the creepiest movie locations ever. It's almost a character unto itself, and it lends incredible production value to the film.
The film has its share of problems. Although its portrayal of the two main female characters is actually fairly progressive for the time, and their obligatory lesbian encounter is handled in as non-exploitative a manner as possible, another seemingly obligatory element is a rape scene (courtesy of the male smuggler character), fairly graphic but thankfully brief. The makeup and special effects, while certainly effective, are rather crude (this is one film that could probably benefit from a remake using modern technology). Additionally, there's a segment in which one of the Templars' victims inexplicably returns to life as a zombie, killing a morgue attendant and stalking a woman through a factory full of mannequins, a seemingly random plot point which was abandoned in all of the film's three sequels. Still, I can't complain too much, as these scenes are among the most frightening in the film. Despite its flaws, Tombs of the Blind Dead remains a nightmarish horror classic that still manages to scare and unnerve after more than four decades.