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Monday, July 15, 2024

Ramsey Campbell: Master of Personal Nightmare.

One of the pillars of the horror genre is the fiction of Ramsey Campbell. The importance and influence of his work can not be overstated. His protagonists are perverts, obsessives, loners, and losers. Often they end up lost in some kind of dark erotic delirium or ambigious nightmare straight out of their own subconscious regrets and fears. Mystery is all-important in his work, leaving the reader lost in the narrative long after they have put the book down. There is a dream logic that flows through his tales like a haze or a fog. Things almost make sense, but it feels like one piece, a piece necessary to understand what is going on is missing. The ominous endings leave you in darkness and confusion.

There is a strong element of Ramsey exploring the darkest recesses of his mind. His fears, his desires, and his obsessions, freely and unashamedly examined and played with in his tales. There is also very clearly his deep love for the horror genre. His playing with tropes and twisting them into his own unique point of view. You can tell Ramsey puts the crafting of an incredible horror tale first, even if it exposes an uncomfortable amount of his inner life. His love of the horror genre shines through his work. He explores the field and what you can do with it, pushing the limits of what can be talked about and dealt with in the genre. What the limits are and how to push beyond them. Ramsey Campbell may be the most important horror author since H.P. Lovecraft. 

Campbell’s tales offer no easy explanation. Often ending in darkness and mystery, the reader is left confused, not sure what just happened. His tales linger in the reader's mind. What was that in the darkness? What was that voice in the night? You will never know. You can’t come to terms with what you don’t understand. Which is a vital key to Campbell’s work. There is no winning. You don’t even know what happened. What you are facing. How can you fight the darkness? And what if the darkness is coming from within you? In a way, the darkness and the unknown emerge from the protagonists. Their innermost shameful desires and secret regrets come out, lurking, twisted, and inhuman. There is an almost self-destructive element to his plots, the protagonists rarely are chased by the horrors, rather they go seeking them, and come to meet them, in whatever strange form they have taken. Another way Campbell reveals himself in his work. From absent parents, broken homes, lonely men, sexually frustrated loners, and stressed want to be authors. Inadequate lovers, and troubled couples, there is a realism to Campbell’s work, facing real-world troubles and failures, that balance the abstract deliriums that haunt his work. 

Do his characters desire the strange dooms awaiting them? Are they seeking transformations and the corruptions that await the end for them? The violation and transformation of the human body is a central concern of Campbell. Sometimes perverts, horror authors, or neurotics find themselves physically mutilated or metamorphosed into something else, their flesh twisted into new forms and meant for new purpose. Regular people who in the end find themselves to be actually something quite unhuman. Or shown to never have been human to begin with. Sometimes his characters come to realize a hidden truth and find to their horror that life is not what they thought it was, that there is a corruption at the core of existence. His stories are populated by whispering figures in the night, fungal horrors lurking underground, and unearthly doppelgangers who have taken over your friends and family. Chimerical and strange beings lurk at the corner store or your familes dining room table. For all the dooms that come down on his characters, his stories never come across as moralistic. That may be because there are no “good” characters in his work. No good family man overcoming the evil horrors. In fact, he seems to be saying that we all are corrupt. We all in our own ways are perverts and obsessives. A lot of times the horrors are reflections of the protagonist. Nothing can be overcome because life itself is a nightmare. 

Clear predecessors to Ramsey’s work are Lovecraft, M.R. James, Robert Aickman, and Fritz Leiber. Also, a strong dose of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Vladimir Nabokov can be seen in his prose style and use of wordplay. He certainly also paid close attention to the maturing of the horror film in the 1960’s and 1970’s and drew inspiration from the best of that new wave of horror film. At the same time, the European art house film around the 1950’s and 1960’s were providing new ways to disquiet and challenge the audience. A quick list of films that you can clearly see an influence on Ramsey Campbell’s work include: Vertigo, Don’t Look Now, Last Year in Marienbad, Belle de Jour, Eraserhead, The Eclipse, Repulsion, and The Innocents. 

His early collections, the era of his work that I prefer, are masterworks of the genre. Demons by Daylights was one of those works that changed the shape of horror forever. A seminal work that stands with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, showing a completely new path for horror to take. For me, his most essential books are his incredible run of works between 1973 and 1987. Campbell’s Demons by Daylight (1973) was oblique in its storytelling and sexually explicit, it used a kind of urban realism, the horrors of run-down apartment complexes and dark streets of empty houses that may hide any kind of horror. He then followed that up with the ambiguous tales of obsession and desire in his The Height of the Scream (1976). In this collection, he perfects the combination of abstract surreal atmosphere with emotionally ruined characters. His next collection, a masterwork of tales of creeping dread, Dark Companions (1982) shows Campbell absolutely at the height of his craft. His prose has never been better than here, and many of his all-time greatest works are contained within. Later on, he released Scared Stiff (1987) a collection that put the sex to the forefront but retained Campbell’s signature hallucinogenic style. Highly recommended also is his collection of Lovecraftian fiction, Cold Print (1985), an updating of classic cosmic horror tropes, bringing sexual deviancy and emotionally complex characters to the normally coldly inhuman style of Lovecraft.

You can see Campbell's influence spreading all over the horror genre, whether indirectly in the late 1990’s early 2000’s J-Horror films like Kairo and Cure or directly in the degraded pessimistic fantasies of Thomas Ligotti. His signature tropes of creeping dread and vertigo-inducing endings have spread their tentacles all over the horror genre. He has undeniably changed the tradition of horror literature forever. He helped make horror more personal, more about personal nightmares and deep dives into the darkest parts of one psyche. The diseased mental landscapes of the average man. Blighted urban landscapes that you can see right out your window. Ramsey Campbell shows us how dark the inner lives of people, by revealing the darkness inside himself, can really be. There has never been a better champion for the importance of horror as literature, or a greater practitioner. 

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Review: Stone Gods by Adam Golaski.

Adam Golaski may be the most underappreciated writer working in the horror genre. His first horror collection, Worse Than Myself, kind of flew under the radar when it was first released. But since then it has been slowly getting revived by writers and critics who now realize what an absolute masterpiece Worse Than Myself was. A true cult phenomenon, Worse Than Myself was the collection that other horror writers would name as one of the greats. Now I feel that it is commonly recognized as deserving to stand with such works as Campbell’s Dark Companions and Ligotti’s Grimscribe as a modern-day classic. 

Now, with much anticipation, Golaski has come with a new horror collection. Stone Gods. Does it live up to his first collection? And after having read it I would answer with a definite yes. Golaski is a writer who is hard to pin down. He goes from surrealist horror to abstract pieces to takes on classic horror tropes. He resists classification and follows his own obsessions. A lot of his work has a kind of labyrinthine logic, scenes straight out of a dream, and plots dovetailing in on themselves. 

I would like to focus here on my favorite stories from Stone Gods, and one of my favorite stories of all time. “Hushed Will Be All Murmurs”. In this tale, two men are seemingly trying to get to the sea and avoid some kind of calamity. A strange fog envelops everything, and hints are made that it has spread everywhere. Then the tale goes to the memories of a man who failed a girl who tried to seduce him. A personal trauma of regret. Then the man finds what he thinks is a stone, covered in seaweed on the beach shore. He gets closer and realizes it is a decapitated head. The head of the girl who he failed to get in fact. It beckons him closer. Has him touch her lips. Then the story freefalls into delirium and circles back around to the beginning of the tale.

Hushed Will Be All Murmurs combines personal trauma, subconscious imagery, hints of apocalypse, the haunting sublime of seashores, and a fog that hides all clear meanings. This story is a personal favorite. I have long been a fan of Golaski’s work, and this is a shining example of why I love his work. And this is just a taste of what delights await in Stone Gods. Don’t wait on this one. Golaski is a master of the horror tale. A real cult author in horror circles, talking about his work is almost like revealing a secret. Pick up Worse Than Myself and Stone Gods and find out what we all have been talking about. 

Review: Invaginies by Joe Koch

    Let me start this review by saying this: Joe Koch’s work is a revelation. Let me also say: Joe Koch is one of the most vital voices working in the horror field today. I have read his new collection, Invaginies, and it blew me away. Joe Koch has quietly been creating a body of work that deserves a wider audience. Let me lend my voice to getting his name out there.

    Invagines showcases Joe Koch’s style, a blend of abstract surrealism and transgressive body horror. In all honesty, most work that falls on the more “experimental” and abstract usually misses me. A lot of work in this mode seems to me to be badly written, using the “experimental” label to excuse lazy writing and a lack of any real ideas. But after having heard his name talked about with excitement in horror literature circles, I knew I had to give his work a chance. Then I read his story “Paranoid Cancers of a Demented Eros” in Sam Richard’s J.G. Ballard tribute anthology Feral Architecture: Ballardian Horrors. And his story just seeped into my body and my psyche like some parasitic vermin or some corrupting video signal. It stayed with me and kept me thinking about it. Unlike most “experimental” work, this was written with precision. Full of interesting ideas, arresting images, and just amazingly lush poetic writing. I knew then that this was a writer to watch. 

    Now having read his collection Invaginies, I  feel Joe Koch is a master of the horror tale. These works fulfill the promise of his previous work I had read. In a field of horror literature that is becoming increasingly bland, safe, and stale, Joe Koch’s work is seductive and dangerous. Whispering secrets that may not be safe to say in the daylight. Contained in Invaginies are tales that delight in the failures of the body, stories that show that sometimes Eros may look like Thanatos and sometimes Thanatos looks like Eros, stories that show disease in full bloom, and how poetry may be made from infection and corruption. 

    In terms of works that Invaginies may have a kinship with, I can see a relation to M. Gira’s The Consumer, William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, some of the more outlandish tales of Clark Ashton Smith, a heavy splash of Kathy Acker and Kathe Koja, and Micheal Blumlein’s The Brains of Rats. I feel now with Invaginies, Joe Koch can be said to be a major figure in horror literature. Now having tasted his deliciously poisonous concoctions, I need more… more…

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Spanish Horror Part 4: Jorge Grau by Joe Zanetti.

            From its inception in 1968, to its end in 1975, Spain’s horror boom dropped a terror bomb on Spanish audiences. During that seven year period, around 150 horror films were produced, accounting for more than a third of the industry’s nationwide output. Numerous directors flocked to the genre, releasing their brand of horror on audiences ripe for being scared beyond measure. We’ve explored the works of Amando de Ossorio and Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, two titans of the horrific and macabre. Another name that belongs in the same league of fear is a man who released three horror films in quick succession, from 1973-1974: Jorge Grau. 

The Barcelona-borne director was known for knowing exactly what he wanted in his films, and how he wanted it done. He was a multi-faceted person who was mostly self-taught. He worked in theatre as both an actor and director. He worked in radio as a scriptwriter. He was a painter and sculptor. He loved reading poetry, especially the works of Edgar Allan Poe. He enjoyed reading the stories of Guy de Maupassant. He was an artist in every sense of the word, and it more than shows in his films. In an interview with his son, Carlos Grau, he described Jorge as being an “anarchist” in terms of his approach to filmmaking. He didn’t like being given direction; he liked being in control, but not in a negative way. He was involved in so many aspects of his film. He knew what music he wanted for his films. He knew how much he wanted/needed for a scene, like how much nighttime he needed for a shot. He would tell his cameramen where to place their cameras and what he wanted. His work in theatre meshed well with the actors and actresses in his films. If someone was unsure they could perform a scene, Grau would encourage and coach them, treating them with respect and the utmost professionalism. And because of the care he took with them, he got the performances he wanted, making his films stand out among the many other horror films released during that period. Like many other Spanish directors during the horror boom, Grau didn’t begin his career in the horror genre. He directed various drama and arthouse films, and would continue to make films well after Spain’s horror boom, many of which are rather difficult to find. And like other Spanish directors, Grau found he could explore social issues through the lens of horror, and he was quite good at it.  

Grau also described himself as being “anti-pressure”; he loved the idea of being free and not having any ideas imposed on him, which meant he really didn’t align himself with any political affiliations, garnering criticism of him from both the left and right. What is clear, though, is that he was against fascism, and was vehemently against the death penalty, a subject explored in his film Violent Blood Bath (1974), which is the American title. The original title is Death Penalty (Pena de muerte), which is much more in line with the film and its subject matter. What he is highly known for is Blood Ceremony (Ceremonia sangrienta) (1973), his spin on the Countess Bathory tale, and his benchmark film The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974). It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest zombie films to plague the big screen, even rivaling George Romero in his zombie prime. Let’s explore these films, their significance, and their impact on the genre.

The first of Grau’s horror films was Blood Ceremony (aka The Legend of Blood Castle). Released in 1973, the film is set in Eastern Europe (remember, evil could NEVER exist in Spain) during the 19th century, centering on a wealthy aristocratic couple living an excessive, lavish lifestyle behind castle walls while the peasants living in the countryside are gripped by fear and superstition; they believe vampires are plaguing the lands and are performing macabre rituals to seek out and dispose of them. High up in her castle, Countess Erzebeth Bathory (played by the enchanting Lucia Bosé) passage of time, grieving what she sees as her fading beauty. She does not care for the villagers on her lands, barely taking notice of what is happening outside. She also wishes for the attention and affection of her husband, Count Karl Ziemmer (played by Espartaco Santoni), who spends his time being fascinated by the villagers and their superstitions, constantly watching and observing them. When he’s not playing the role of perverse voyeur, he passes the time with his predatory birds, watching them hunt, catch, and rip apart their prey, piece by piece. He’s a sadistic man who enjoys watching pain and terror inflicted upon others. The Countess’s personal nurse, an old woman who has the characteristics of a Crone, reminds her of the legendary Erzebeth Bathory, her ancestor, and how she bathed in the blood of virgins to remain beautiful and keep her youth. At first, the Countess is dubious of the tale told by her nurse, but when the blood of a servant girl accidentally drips onto her hand, she believes it made that patch of skin whiter, and her obsession with remaining youthful takes a violent and sinister turn. She uses the Count’s lust for sadism to her advantage, unleashing him on the countryside. With his charming looks and arrogant personality, he seduces young women, bringing them back to the castle where the eager, blood-thirsty Countess waits.The film begins with a large group of villagers leading a virgin boy on a horse to a graveyard. Using this “horse test,” they find the grave of a suspected vampire. They exhume it and put a stake through its heart, causing blood to pour out of the wound. This ritual sets the somber, gray tone of the film, telling the viewer this is a land riddled with fear. Grau was fascinated by the story of Bathory, the Hungarian noblewoman turned serial killer. He saw a great story to be told; however, at the time he wanted to make it, horror was still being frowned upon, and was advised against making it. When Spain’s horror boom began, Grau was approached about the film, but was asked to make it like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), but Grau told the producer that it’s nothing at all like Romero’s zombie classic. After reading the script, Grau was given the greenlight to make Blood Ceremony

What’s evident about the film from the start is the production value. From the costumes, set pieces, and locations, the film comes alive with a great sense of authenticity. The Countess and Count have nothing but the finest furnishings in their gigantic castle as it looks ominously over the countryside. They even use gold plates and silverware when dining. Watching Count Ziemmer cut into his rare steak with a gold knife, the red juices spilling out onto the plate paints you a nice picture of a class-based, predatory society. The couple, along with their wealthy friends and politicians, eat only the finest foods, dining in only the nicest places while the rest of the population are fighting to survive. Count Ziemmer’s carnal obsessions are further buttressed by the love he has for his birds of prey; he takes great pleasure in watching them rip apart and devour their prey, a pleasure that will lead him to preying on villagers for the Countess. Grau deftly assembles this juxtaposition of rich and poor, and how the rich do everything they can to exploit those they deem beneath them. They use superstition and fear against them, turning them against one another, playthings for mere amusement and personal gain. The Countess uses her wealth and power to achieve her feverish desire to remain young and beautiful, even if it means the lives of others.

The film’s biggest strengths are the lush visuals and brooding, funereal atmosphere, reminiscent of early Hammer Horror films. The chilling score is an amalgam of bells, booming and piercing sounds weaved with gloomy visuals of rolling hills, fog-filled forests, the imposing castle where horrifying deeds take place. Grau takes great care in creating an experience for the viewer to be fully invested in. It’s obvious Grau did his research, evident by the scene where a supposed “vampire” is on trial in a courtroom. A corpse in a coffin is in the courtroom, on trial for vampirism. The wife and daughter are there to verify its identity as the husband and father, Peter Plajogowitz, accused of biting his daughter and sucking her blood. She shows the marks on her neck, which do not resemble those of a bite, but the hysteria is so rampant, she is taken seriously and believed. The corpse is found guilty and taken away, the head cut off and burned with the body. Peter Plajogowitz is based on a real person. Peter Blagojevic was a Serbian peasant who died in 1725. Shortly after his death, a total of nine people became very ill and died. Before dying, each of the victims claimed they were visited and throttled by Plajogowitz, causing mass panic. His corpse was exhumed and examined for vampirism. Not understanding the decomposition process of a corpse, they saw the telltale signs of vampirism: long hair, blood in the mouth, and what they believed to be new skin and fingernails. The body was staked through the heart, causing blood to pool out, and was then burned. Vampire disposal methods varied region-to-region, village-to-village. A corpse may be buried upside down so that when it awakens, it’ll dig down instead of up. Some would be buried at a crossroads so they couldn’t find their way back. It’s these beliefs and superstitions that Countess Bathory and Count Ziemmer use to their advantage.

The villagers believe vampirism is plaguing the countryside, but it’s the abominable couple performing these heinous acts. They devise a plan to fake Count Ziemmer’s death, giving him a funeral and everything. The countess heads down to the crypt at night to let the Count out of his coffin, beginning their blood-soaked reign of terror. The madness reaches its peak when you see the countess standing as she’s showered with blood from a young woman one floor up; she’s on her back, blood pouring from her neck and down a hole, drenching the Countess as she moves with ecstasy, the eroticism amplified tenfold. Panic and fear around the countryside increase even more as sightings of the “dead” count begin to spread. The death toll rises as Count Ziemmer becomes increasingly more uncontrollable. At the same time, Countess Bathory is tormented by visions of the women slain by the Count, while the villagers have formed a mob and rush to the coffin of the count, only to find two dead women in it, confirming what they suspected: he must be a vampire! The countess takes it upon herself to stop Ziemmer before more women are killed. She finds him in the attic, hunched over a young woman, blood oozing from her. The countess stabs Ziemmer twice, killing him. How fitting that his corpse is put on trial and found guilty, just like that of Peter Plajogowitz, where they got the idea of vampirism in the first place. Countess Bathory confesses her transgressions to the courts, implicating her personal nurse as well; both confined to a room to live out the rest of their days. 

Outside Spain, Blood Ceremony received high praise for its performances, production, soundtrack, everything. A stellar combination of horror, gothic, and drama. Spanish audiences got the fully clothed version, while the international version had everything, including the nudity. During its initial release, it didn’t see much screen time in Spain, but when Narciso Ibáñez Serrador aired it on his show Mis terrores favoritos (1981-1982/1994-1995), Spanish audiences were downright shocked by it. It was even introduced by both Serrador and Grau; they bathed their hands in “blood” before starting the film. Grau created a film that savagely and chillingly depicted a world where the wealthy and powerful use their status, connections, and money to prey on the weak and less fortunate. It’s about a woman who is so obsessed with retaining her beauty, that she’ll stop at nothing to do it. The expectations one puts on their shoulders can drive them to do sinister things, even more so when those expectations are placed on you by your peers, your partner, your family, etc. A story about the real vampires being the kind that suck you dry of your ability to live comfortably. Grau took an old story and made it into his own tale about the social and class divide in Spain. He does this in his other horror films, each one vastly different from the other.  

Grau’s next film in his horror cycle is Violent Blood Bath (1974), which nowhere near accurately reflects what the film is about. There is little violence, and no blood baths. The original Spanish title is Pena de muerte (Death Penalty), which is much more in line with the film’s subject matter: the death penalty. Grau traded castles,  the countryside, superstitions and legends for seaside resorts, fancy cars, parties and sunny skies. It’s also loosely adapted from a short by Guy de Maupassant, titled Diary of a Madman, published in 1885. The film lacks the chilling atmosphere and ghostly visuals of Blood Ceremony, focusing more heavily on social issues through intense dialog while throwing in some dead bodies here and there. 

Oscar Bataille (Fernando Rey) is a district attorney from France on vacation with his much younger wife Patricia (Marisa Mell) at a luxury resort in coastal Spain. Oscar is a feared attorney who is notorious for seeking the death penalty in his cases. While on their holiday, a strange series of events begin unfolding. People staying at the resort, and living in the area, are turning up dead. What makes it so bizarre, though, is that the murders are exactly like those committed by people Oscar prosecuted back in France and were subsequently executed. In France, the mother of one of the executed receives mail in the form of a large payment that the departed sent to himself. The mother says it’s not possible because her son is dead. It makes the headlines in newspapers throughout Europe, which Oscar reads while on his vacation. Later that day, Oscar gives a young woman a ride home, and she points out a house she was recently staying at, saying the husband-and-wife owners seemingly moved out with their daughter. Oscar can tell something isn’t right and seems to know exactly what happened. He contacts the police and informs them of what they’ll find, making him a suspect. Other people find themselves in the crosshairs of the police and the killer, resulting in a game of cat and mouse, where everyone is a suspect, and anyone could be the killer. Did the killers come back from the dead, looking to exact phantasmal vengeance on Oscar? Or, is it Oscar himself committing the murders? 

Grau’s denouncement of the death penalty afforded him a golden opportunity to explore the subject. The film begins with exterior shots of a giant courthouse, the camera zooming in on statues of divine figures, carvings of lions, eagles, and scales of justice while booming, doom-laden music plays. Predatory animals are a reflection of the predatory system of “justice” we have in place. The in-your-face intro captures and sets the tone for the rest of the film. The courthouse is a place where men play divine roles, doling out the harshest of judgements without batting an eye. They believe divine providence is on their side, further fueling their perversion of justice. Oscar is ruthless in seeking out the death penalty for those he persecutes. He speaks loudly and is very animated, manipulating the jury with his speeches. There never seems to be ample evidence to fully paint the defendant as guilty, but Oscar is great at spinning things in favor of his desired outcome: death. He makes it crystal clear that he’ll do everything in his power to have them “sentenced to death.” There’s a generational conflict at play as well. Oscar notes that he hates the passage of time and resents growing old. He hates what the world is becoming and wants to live on, dispensing his cruel brand of justice, which appears to be geared towards the younger generation. It’s fitting that the movie was released in 1974, one year before the death of General Franco and the transition to Democracy. The outdated and narrow-minded ideals of the regime have no place in a growing, changing Spain.

        Touted as a Spanish “giallo,” the film certainly has the elements, but calling it a full-blown giallo is a bit of a stretch. It seems more akin to a psychological thriller, or even a police procedural. The film is not without the twists and turns that are staples in the genre. There are numerous players involved, including Oscar’s antithesis: a true crime writer named Wilson Vargas, played by Espartaco Santoni, also known for his role as the malicious Count Karl Ziemmer from the previously discussed Blood Ceremony. It just so happens that Vargas is staying at the same resort as Oscar and Patricia. His current book project is about Oscar and his love for the death penalty; he’s familiar with all the cases but wants the chance to interview Oscar about his stance on the subject. Vargas is against the death penalty, seeing it as inhumane and something not for us to decide. This leads to intense, heated discussions between the two, each not backing down from their respective stances. It’s also revealed that Vargas and Patricia know each other, partaking in past trysts behind Oscar’s back. They continue their affair at the resort, Patricia seemingly conflicted. She loves Oscar but is tired of the life she has with him. She doesn’t share his crazed lust for the death penalty and wants more out of life than just watching him bury himself in his work. With his knowledge of Oscar’s cases and intimacy with Patricia, Vargas is another suspect in the killings taking place, as is Patricia. 

Other characters are introduced, with each one being a potential suspect because they know Oscar or have some sort of interest in him. Each suspect is subsequently killed, leaving only Oscar, Paricia, and Vargas left. As the film progresses, it’s clear that Oscar is becoming more and more unstable with his illness. He’s waking up in his clothes, talking as if he’s one of the people he had sentenced to death, saying the exact same things they said during their trials. When Patricia sees Oscar’s personality change and loss of memory, she begins suspecting him. She finds a man dead in an elevator, choked to death with one of her scarves. It all culminates with Grau taking a somewhat extreme approach with Oscar. It’s revealed that Oscar is suffering from split personalities. He takes on the identities of his victims and performs the murders they supposedly committed. Patricia alerts Vargas to what’s really going on, and it’s up to him to stop Oscar from murdering Patricia. It seems fitting that a man so obsessed with his advocacy for the death penalty turns out to be the killer all along. It’s almost poetic. And rather than turn himself over to the authorities, he kills himself with a pair of scissors. He judged himself the same way he judged his victims, and his penalty was death. Grau does well in keeping you invested in the story, despite its slow-burn pace. Even if you have an idea who the killer is, you’re still left wondering if, maybe, you’re wrong. You want to see the film’s conclusion.

        Violent Blood Bath was not met with the same success as Blood Ceremony. It was poorly received in theatres and received negative reviews from critics. It doesn’t have the lush, perverse visuals, or the lavish set designs. The film is much colder and somber in tone, though, and the ending is rather downbeat. It also feels much more personal. There’s very little violence, and gore is practically nonexistent, but not without some sinister, horrifying moments. The film relies more on suspense and build-up, though, dialing it up little by little. It’s not a stellar film, but it does showcase the versatility of Grau, a director more than capable of exploring different branches of the genre. This is even more evident when the next film in his horror cycle is released. 

Grau had one more film to release during the Spanish horror boom, and it delivered on every possible level. We are talking about The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974), widely considered to be one of the greatest zombie films of all time, giving George Romero’s original zombie trilogy a run for its money. Romero is an important figure here. Night of the Living Dead (1968) had a huge impact in Europe, resulting in numerous directors and producers wanting to emulate it. Grau was a fan of Romero’s film but didn’t want to direct a carbon copy of it. What viewers got was a well-paced, multi-layered, flesh-tearing, entrail-ripping, shocking mix of science-fiction and the supernatural.

The film’s main protagonists are George (Ray Lovelock) and Edna (Cristina Galbó, who played Teresa in Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s The House that Screamed), both finding themselves in a situation that has an angry, fascist police detective (Arthur Kennedy) just aching to lock them up for murders taking place in the English countryside. Except the murderers are corpses reanimated by an experimental agricultural device designed to emit radioactive waves that force insects to kill each other, resulting in greater crop yields for farmers. What ensues is George and Edna’s desperate fight for survival, caught between ravenous zombies and trigger-happy cops. 

Like Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series, Grau’s film is part of the zombie cycle of films that made up part of Spain’s horror boom. It’s a liminal period in the sense that zombie cinema lore hadn’t quite yet been established. Spanish directors capitalized on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead before even HE did. This made for bizarre and bonker films that were equal parts head-scratching and gut-wrenching. Grau’s zombies had numerous peculiarities. Head shots do not kill them, only fire. They do not appear in photographs, lending them an air of the supernatural. One zombie even stands straight up, like a vampire rising from its coffin. Their eyes are irradiated from the farming machine’s ultrasonic waves, which gives them an origin, something Grau liked establishing. They have great strength, able to lift a headstone out of the ground and use it for a battering ram. Only a few zombies are in the film, but that gives them more personal attention. Grau gave each zombie a backstory and told them to the actors and actresses playing them, resulting in creepy, terrifying, memorable performances. In the film, it’s theorized that the machine’s waves are affecting only the recently dead, the radiation tampering with the nervous system. The theory is further strengthened by the fact that newborn babies are suddenly behaving aggressively, almost murderously. The special makeup effects were done by Italian artist Gianetto De Rossi, who would become synonymous with Lucio Fulci’s unforgettable Zombie (1979). De Rossi did a phenomenal job at making the zombies look fresh, like they had died only a couple days prior, adding an extra element of terror. And the gore? Yeah, the film has no shortage of it. De Rossi didn’t hold back. A police officer’s entrails ripped from him as he writhes in agony, a blood-curdling scream right before he stops moving. A nurse ripped apart at a hospital desk. One zombie takes an ax to a doctor’s head and proceeds to feast on him. One bizarre aspect is a zombie putting human blood on the eyelids of a corpse, immediately reanimating it, their eyes irradiated like the others. The score by Giuliano Sorgini is more like a combination of sounds. You can hear the pulsing of the farm machine in conjunction with the deep, sad moans of the zombies. It’s like something you’d hear in a 1950s sci-fi film like Forbidden Planet.  The combination of sci-fi and horror/supernatural makes it an entirely different beast altogether.

The ecological theme of the film is readily apparent. When the film begins in Manchester, George is introduced as an antique dealer closing his shop for a road trip to the country. Shots of industrial sectors and smokestacks are shown. A man walks out of a pharmacy and immediately takes his medicine. People wearing masks, trash piled up. George sees a dead bird on the side of the street. As he takes off on his motorcycle, he covers his face, so he doesn’t have to smell the city air, and then removes it once he’s in the country. There’s a drone-like element in the city as well. A woman disrobes and runs naked across the street, but no one takes notice; they are too busy staring at traffic lights, looking down at their newspapers, as if they cannot be bothered with anything happening outside their own lives. It sets up this juxtaposition between the city and the country. George is happy to be out of the smog-filled city and breathing clean country air. When he and Edna are driving together, the news on the radio mentions food shortages and other ecological crises that are said to be exaggerated and shouldn’t be worried about. George turns the radio off in disgust, knowing these issues are serious and not to be ignored. When they reach a dead-end road, unsure of where they are, George gets out and crosses a river on foot, looking for anyone who can give them directions. This is when the agricultural machine is first seen, and George is clearly discontented with its mere presence. When he’s told how it affects insects, he becomes even more exasperated by the machine and the people operating it. Later in the film, when it’s established the machine is affecting babies and bringing the dead back to life, George goes back to the farm and begins hitting it with a large wrench and damaging it. This coincides with environmental activists forming movements that would sabotage farm equipment or anything that they viewed as detrimental to the environment. The countryside is viewed as the last bastion of all that is beautiful and clean, untouched by “progress.”

Complementing the ecological theme is the generational conflict between the duo of George and Edna, and the head police detective. George and Edna are both from the city and are representative of a new generation of ideals and beliefs. The city is where troublemakers, hippies, liberals, etc. are found. The country is where the “good” people live and have no desire to see city folk come around and taint their way of life, pollute their pure atmosphere, and corrupt their beliefs. The police inspector is convinced the killings are the work of George and Edna, but mainly George. The inspector tells George that he can’t stand to look at him. He hates George’s long, shaggy hair, his leather jacket (“your long hair and f**got clothes). George is anathema to everything the inspector values. He’s not above getting physical with George, grabbing him by the jacket, shoving him around. “And you hate the cops” he says to George, and his response is “Well, you make it easy.” Even though the film was shot in the U.K., it’s clear Grau is denouncing the fascist government of Spain, led by General Franco. The old guard is threatened by the youth movement. Ideals, values and beliefs are changing. The people are tired of living under an oppressive regime that dictates what they should believe, and how they should conduct themselves. Edna is treated poorly by the majority of the men, including George. While she’s waiting outside the car for George, who is at the machine, she sees a figure in her periphery, and it’s the first zombie of the film, a man named Guthrie who lived on the riverbank. Running away and scared out of her mind, she finds George and tells him what happened. In typical fashion, she’s not even taken remotely seriously; she becomes the hysterical woman trope, and the inspector is even worse to her, and her sister, too. Edna was driving to the country to visit her sister who is basically a prisoner in her own home. Katie and her husband are staying out in the country because of Katie’s heroin addiction, which is of no help, because she has heroin in their country home. It sort of demolishes this idea that everything in the country is perfect, nothing bad could ever happen in such a gorgeous place. 

When Grau viewed the film at a later date, he said he realized that he had made a love story. When George and Edna first meet, it’s purely by accident. George stops at a gas station to fill up, only to have his motorcycle knocked over by Edna going in reverse in her mini cooper. The damage requires the cycle to stay at the station since the parts needed won’t arrive until after the weekend. Edna is very apologetic and assures George she’ll help with expenses. Think of it as their meet cute. George isn’t exactly the nicest person to her, irritated that his weekend has been pretty much ruined. They bicker back and forth, and as stated previously, he doesn’t believe her when things start to go south. But as the film progresses, you do see mutual feelings slowly develop, making the ending even more tragic. Towards the film’s end, Edna and her sister Katie are at the hospital, but the zombies are there as well, coming back to life due to engineers fixing the machine and increasing its radius, after George damaged it with a wrench. George becomes aware of this and rushes to the hospital while the police inspector is hot on his heels. Katie becomes a zombie and swarms around Edna with other zombies, then George arrives just in time and throws Molotov cocktails at the zombies, grabbing Edna before it’s too late; however, it already is. Edna looks at George with her irradiated eyes, lunging at him. He throws her into the fire as she holds out her arms as if she’s pleading for him to be with her, but he knows he can’t. At that moment, the inspector shows up with other officers and guns down George in the hospital hallway. The feelings they had for each other snuffed out like a flame. The inspector looks at George’s body and says, “I wish the dead really could come back to life, you bastard, so I could kill you again.” Viewers get some satisfaction, though. When the inspector returns to his hotel room for the night, a reanimated George is waiting in the shadows. The inspector shoots him, but it has no effect, and is strangled to death. It cuts to the farming machine still working, ominously portending doom.

Like Blood Ceremony, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue was met with high praise and criticism. Being an international hit, the film was given numerous different titles depending on who was handling distribution, and where it was being played. Some of the titles are Don’t Open the Window; Let Sleeping Corpses Lie; or the more literal Spanish title of No profanar el sueño de los muertos (Do Not Profane the Sleep of the Dead). It wouldn’t be viewed on television in Spain until November 16, 1981, introduced by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador on his short-lived show Mis terrores favoritos. Once again, Spanish viewers were shocked and horrified by the graphic violence and special effects. Grau didn’t use a single jump scare, nor did he want any in the film. It works purely on atmosphere, the performances, and the special effects. It was so widely viewed and praised outside Spain, it was a favorite of George Romero, and Grau had been told Romero had a poster of the film framed and hanging on a wall. The film is so many different things, and that’s because of the diversity that permeates it. You have a Spanish director, an Italian script, and Italian producers. Plus, the film is set in the U.K. Visually, it looks very British, but has the gore so prominently featured in Italian horror, and you have Grau who is critiquing the government of Spain. The actors bring diversity as well. Ray Lovelock was Anglo-Italian. Fernando Hilbeck, who played the zombie Guthrie, was Anglo-Spanish. Cristina Galbó from Spain, and Arthur Kennedy from the U.S. All these diverse elements help make The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue such a standout among not just Spanish horror, but horror in general. Grau achieved what very few Spanish directors of the time did: break a horror movie into the international market.

After The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, Grau directed films more along the lines of drama, but still exploring the social issues he felt were important. In 1983, his exploitation film Hunting Ground (aka Code of Hunting), which is a harrowing, violent look at the criminal justice system and how crime is viewed. It also has elements of the quinqui subgenre that emerged in Spain during the early-to-mid ‘80s, which are juvenile gang dramas (quinqui being short for “quincallero,” which means delinquent). Grau truly went all the way with this one, and the ending is as powerful as it is unforgettable. Each of the films discussed are available on physical media. Blood Ceremony is available on blu-ray from Mondo Macabro, as is Hunting Ground. Violent Blood Bath is available on blu-ray as a triple feature from Vinegar Syndrome. It comes with two other Spanish films: The Fish with the Eyes of Gold, directed by Pedro L. Ramirez, and Night of the Skull, directed by Jess Franco (how could you not want that lineup?). The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is available on blu-ray from Synapse Films, and it’s worth it for the special features alone. Grau died on December 26, 2018, and like many of his Spanish horror contemporaries, he’s remembered for his work in horror during a time that was unprecedented in Spain. He left behind a legacy of horror that still captivates and revolts viewers today.