Movies: Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

I feel as though I’ve covered a great deal of American, British, Italian, Asian, and French horror on this site, but one country’s offerings that I’ve mostly neglected thus far is Spain, a nation that also had something of a horror boom in the 1970s, which was in fact largely kicked off by the classic film we’re discussing today. So I figured it was time to rectify my tragic oversight.

1972’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (originally known as La noche del terror ciego, or The Night of Blind Terror) was written and directed by Amando de Ossorio, and was successful enough to almost immediately spawn three “official” sequels (1973’s Return of the Blind Dead; 1974’s The Ghost Galleon; and 1975’s Night of the Seagulls). There were also a handful of unofficial sequels and spinoffs, including La cruz del diablo from 1975, and Jesús Franco’s Mansion of the Living Dead from 1982; more recently, 2009 saw the release of the low-budget, shot-on-video, unauthorized follow-up Graveyard of the Dead, and in 2021, two films came out based on the lore set down in the original film: Curse of the Blind Dead (directed by Raffaele Ricchio), and Scream of the Blind Dead (directed by Chris Alexander). So it’s easy to see how much of a cultural impact this film had in Spain and elsewhere, even if only as a cult film, despite it being maybe not as well known today, except among hardcore horror aficionados.

Another fun fact is that when the film was released in its English-language version, rather hilariously, the distributors wanted to cash in on the Planet of the Apes gravy train, so re-edited Tombs to make it seem as though it was occurring after an apocalypse, and explaining via voiceover that the monsters of the piece were actually intelligent apes who returned from the dead. And no, I’m not making that up; that was an idea that at least one person had, and presumably had other people go along with. The edited version of the movie, by the way, was titled Revenge from Planet Ape. It doesn’t make sense to me either, and if you’ve actually seen Tombs, you’ll understand my befuddlement.

Considering it was made right around the time when exploitation horror was just coming to the forefront and it’s clearly targeting that audience somewhat, the film is surprisingly pretty light on gore and nudity (and became even more so after some countries trimmed out the few “objectionable” scenes it did have). But Tombs does have a very gothic, Hammer-like atmosphere that goes a long way toward making it memorable, and I have to say that the villains of the film—a group of revenant Knights Templar who return from the dead each night to feed on the living and thus fuel their immortality—are awesome, and their look is one of the major reasons to recommend the movie to those who haven’t seen it. The baddies aren’t quite zombies and aren’t quite vampires, and they have some mummy attributes in there as well, but whatever you call them, they’re definitely their own unique thing. They even ride horses, although I have no idea where they keep getting the horses from. Maybe they were buried with them?

As rad as the movie is, though, overall I have to admit that I found it pretty slow-moving at times, and a lot of the character motivations and plotting are pretty muddled (for example, certain backstories and character traits are introduced, but don’t factor into the story at all going forward), but the Blind Dead themselves are so cool and eerie that I can almost forgive the film’s shortcomings.

At the very beginning of the film, after an ominous intro of shots of the ruins that will be factoring into the tale set to a creepy score, we’re thrown headlong onto a pool deck in Lisbon, Portugal, where we meet one of our main characters, Betty Turner (Lone Fleming), who happens to run into her old best friend and roommate, Virginia White (María Elena Arpón). Betty has recently moved to Lisbon and owns a mannequin factory (a neat detail that I thought was going to play into the story more, but doesn’t end up amounting to much). Virginia is on vacation with her “friend” (with benefits, I’m assuming) Roger Whelan (César Burner), and Roger immediately takes a shine to the comely Betty, inviting her along on an excursion the following day. Virginia seems upset by this, and at first I thought it was because she actually had more feelings for Roger than she was letting on and was getting jealous that he was fogging on Betty so hard, but you find out a bit later that it was actually Betty and Virginia who had a bit of a thing going in college, so Virginia is really jealous because she wants Betty for herself. This situation is illustrated by a brief, fairly tame flashback of the two women kissing and making out in their dorm room years before, but is never really brought up again and also never really feeds into the plot in any substantial way.

Anyhow, because of the simmering tension between the three on the train journey to wherever it is that they’re going, Virginia decides to nope out of the trip, and while her two companions aren’t looking, she hops off the train and heads across a field toward what appears to be an old village in the distance. It isn’t clear what she was planning on doing once she got there and how she was expecting to get back home, but since her actions are what draw her into the clutches of the Blind Dead, we’ll just roll with it.

The “town” she finds out there, we discover later on, is an abandoned medieval village called Berzano, located right on the border between Spain and Portugal. Legend has it that a fictionalized version of the Knights Templar held court there, and decided they were going to start worshipping Satan and sacrificing virgins in order to live forever, as one does. Now, so the locals claim, the Knights return from their graves each night in order to feast on the blood of whoever happens to be around. No word on whether the Knights bother to roll out of their coffins when no one has been clueless enough to wander into their domain on any particular night; I’m thinking not, but what do I know? It’s not like the dead have much else to do, right?

So Virginia, who pretty quickly twigs onto the fact that this place is devoid of (living) people, proceeds to wander around the ruins for a while before lighting a fire and bedding down for the night. No sooner has she drifted off to dreamland, however, than the Blind Dead start crawling outta the ground and moving in on her, perhaps smelling her sweet, sweet, virgin (um…no) blood.

By the way, the reason that the revenants are the blind dead is because, way back in the day, they were caught by the powers that be whilst engaging in all that Satanism and sacrificial tomfoolery, and not only were they excommunicated, they were also hanged from trees and left as a warning to others. Crows pecked out their eyes, so now their zombified versions have to hunt by sound alone, which I thought was a really cool touch.

The next morning, the very dead Virginia turns up in the field adjoining Berzano, and she looks like she’s been pretty thoroughly nibbled on. Before her death is public knowledge, though, Roger and Betty go out to Berzano themselves to see if they can find Virginia, since neither of them have heard from her since she gave them the slip the day before. During the course of their investigation, they cross paths with a professor of some sort who tells them the legend about the Blind Dead, and also recommends they go visit his scumbag son Pedro, who is a smuggler in the area where the Knights are supposedly active. Pedro, as it happens, is also under suspicion for killing Virginia, because of course the police don’t believe that centuries-dead Satanists are wandering around munching on the townsfolk. Incidentally, there’s a whole bizarre subplot with Pedro and his lover Nina which ends up indirectly culminating with Pedro raping Betty (because…yeah), but again, nothing really comes of that, other than Pedro getting attacked by the Knights shortly afterward, thus receiving his comeuppance for his crime.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s corpse also gets up and starts killing people, starting with a weirdo morgue attendant who likes to torment harmless frogs, so I guess much like vampirism, whatever brought the Blind Dead back from the…well, dead…is contagious.

Basically, the rest of the movie is the Knights riding around on their horses in silent, slow-motion shots which are actually pretty effective, and occasionally eating one of the characters. There’s also a flashback scene showing the Knights when they were alive, sacrificing a woman by tying her to a torture rack, stripping her down to her undies, and riding their horses around her in a circle (they’re inside the chapel thingie, by the way) while taking slices out of her with their swords in one of the most inefficient murders ever committed. This is actually the only scene in the film with any significant gore, as there are a couple of close-up shots of the blades slicing the woman’s flesh, but by modern standards, it’s nothing that would unduly alarm your sheltered grandma.

As I mentioned, it’s really the atmosphere and the Blind Dead themselves that make this one worthwhile, so if you like the Hammer movies and want to see something along similar lines, but with a more continental flair, then this film might do the trick. The runtime seems a bit padded with characters sort of wandering around way more slowly and pointlessly than necessary, and there are a few interesting details introduced that might have made cool subplots if they had been explored further (such as the prior relationship between Betty and Virginia, the utter douchebaggery of Pedro, and whatever the deal was with that frog-poking morgue attendant), but on the whole, it’s not too hard to see why this film became a minor cult classic and inspired an entire series of films and other media, both official and not. As of this writing, the movie is available to stream on Shudder, at least in the United States, so give it a whirl if you want a 70s take on a gothic-style story with some fairly original villains.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.


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