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Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Spanish Horror Part Two: Rise of The Blind Dead by Joe Zanetti.

By the early 1970s, Spanish horror was savagely tearing its way through silver screens, domestically and internationally. The Franco regime was also on its last legs, and things began to loosen up a bit in Spain. Censorship was diminishing, and directors weren’t faced with the rigid scrutiny they were accustomed to during previous years. It was this period that saw directors truly making a name for themselves, frightening and offending audiences with bloody and horrific films that would be forever carved in their memories! One director spawned a tetralogy of films that would brand its unholy mark on the horror genre. From the tenebrous depths of his mind, Amando de Ossorio conjured the Blind Dead. They were Templar knights who would return from their graves and crypts, eternally seeking victims to dismember with their old, rusted swords; to tear the flesh with their rotting teeth, drinking the blood to satisfy their infernal desires!


        The first of Ossorio’s four-film undead cycle was Tombs of the Blind Dead, aka La noche del terror ciego (The Night of the Blind Terror) in Spain. Released in April of 1972, Ossorio’s film was a box-office hit, attracting over 500,000 spectators, and generating over 100,000 euros. More importantly, it gave rise to the Spanish zombie boom, pre-dating the Italian zombie boom that wouldn’t start until the end of the ‘70s! Ossorio took gothic horror elements such as beautiful sweeping landscapes and ancient, dilapidated churches, graveyards, and abbeys, combining them with adult themes and modernity. Audiences were treated to something new and different. The undead knights with their ragged, dirt-covered hooded cloaks and warrior's clothing; skeletal hands and rotting faces with the eyes missing, showing only hollow orbital sockets that look like endless pits; bits of facial hair still remaining, and the phantom horses they ride on. You can smell the stench of death and decay emanating from the screen. They can’t see you, but they can hear your every step, your every breath, heightening the dread! Mixed with these walking cadavers, their gloomy ruins, and archaic, fiendish ways are bikini-clad women, macho and horny dudes, big hotels with giant swimming pools, flash, and pizzazz. This combination of old and modern was a formula not seen in horror cinema. The success of Tombs of the Blind Dead would birth three more films, each one being quite different from the other. Return of the Evil Dead (1973), The Ghost Galleon (1974), and Night of the Seagulls (1975). Where did Amando de Ossorio get this idea, though? What prompted him to make a series of films about Templar knights returning from their hellish slumber to massacre the living and drink their blood?

        Before directing horror films, Ossorio was putting out comedies and spaghetti westerns. In 1965, Paul Naschy (Jacinto Molina) approached him with his idea of making a werewolf film. Ossorio actually turned him down! Seems crazy, but horror just hadn’t quite yet dug its claws in. It was only a matter of time, though, before Ossorio caught on and made his debut horror film Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece (1969). He would also direct The Night of the Sorcerers (1974) and The Loreley’s Grasp (1974). It was his Blind Dead cycle, however, that would put his name on the map! He was influenced by an 1861 gothic horror story titled El Monte de las Animas (The Spirit’s Mountain). In short, it’s about two cousins who go on a hunting expedition with their parents in the Spanish countryside. To pass the time while riding their horses, a tale is told about a nearby hill that is haunted by the spirits of the Knights Templar, and one of the cousins will come face-to-face with the evil. Another influence was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). You cannot talk about zombies without mentioning Romero’s classic! The film played in Spain and was considered to be an arthouse work, becoming popular with the underground. It didn’t influence only  Ossorio, but other directors like Jorge Grau and León Klimovsky (born in Argentina, but settled in Spain during the ‘50s). Ossorio would begin the zombie boom in Spain and have his cycle of films out before Romero’s Dawn of the Dead came out in ‘78. It shows that the Spanish were capitalizing on the zombie trend before Romero could even get his second film out and before the Italians as well! Ossorio is careful to make a clear distinction, though, between his undead Templars and Romero’s slow-moving, mindless hordes who are driven to feed on human flesh. He describes them as being mummies who ride on horseback. Every night, they emerge from their tombs to search for victims and their blood, which also puts them in the category of vampires. They aren’t mindless, they know exactly what they want! They also wield swords that they use to stab, slash, and sever! Audiences were treated to scenes of decapitation; limbs being hacked off; women having their hearts removed as they were being fed upon! It’s also worth noting that Ossorio initially received some resistance from producers. The Templars had no cinematic precedent, and producers argued that audiences were only familiar with classic monsters. Ossorio would create his own artwork, showing producers designs and illustrations depicting his vision. These illustrations would be featured in the first film, where a librarian recounts the tale of the knights. It’s this backstory that adds layers to the film.

The story behind Ossorio’s fictionalized Templars is slightly different in each film, but one aspect that remains the same is they came back from the Crusades as practitioners of black magic, engaging in ritual sacrifices of young virgin women to appease a supernatural force of evil origins, granting them immortality. The films never truly state what they worship, but that’s not exactly an important part. Ossorio would draw these ideas from the historical Knights Templar and the charges brought against them by King Philip IV of France (he really wanted to free himself of his debts to them). The knights were arrested and accused of idol worship, having recruits spit on the cross and deny Christ, engaging in homosexual activity, financial corruption, and other charges. In Tombs of the Blind Dead, we are given a flashback scene that shows the Templars tying a woman to a torture rack, and two of them proceed to ride up and down with their horses, slashing at her with their swords. The knights begin to drink the blood flowing from her wounds. The story goes that they were arrested and tried by the King of Spain, hung from trees and their eyes pecked out by crows, hence them being blind. Return of the Evil Dead has a slightly altered story where a scene shows the knights cutting the heart from a woman and eating it. They are captured by villagers and have their eyes burned out and then burned alive, but not before swearing they will return. The Ghost Galleon features a phantom ship that exists in its own dimension, drawing small boats to it so the bloodthirsty knights can feast on whoever is aboard! The navigational log found on board merely mentions the knights and their captain, “The Dutchman,” returning from the east and ex-communicated by the pope for practicing black magic. Night of the Seagulls takes a rather different approach. It takes place in a coastal village. The opening scene shows the knights worshiping a statue of what looks like a sea deity or demon, adding a bit of a Lovecraftian touch. They cut the heart from a woman and place it in the mouth of the statue. An aesthetic that never changes is the symbol of the knights: a red ankh on their tattered wardrobe, with what looks like a flaming circle around it. The ankh, in conjunction with the sacrifices, symbolizes eternal life through death; they will always come back for blood and sacrifices! With such different stories, locations, and scenarios, it’s easy to think of each film as its own entity; more a reimagining rather than being true sequels, adding an air of mystery and intrigue to Ossorio’s cycle, like mythical tales being retold over time. The actual quality of the subsequent films, though, is an entirely different matter.


        With the release of Tombs of the Blind Dead, Ossorio faced very little censorship. As stated before, the regime had dialed down their restrictions for matters of exporting these films outside Spain. Still, though, the films could not be political; however, that doesn’t mean they didn’t contain political commentary! The Blind Dead films, most notably the first film, offered veiled criticism of the Franco regime and its ideologies. The undead knights with their tattered clothing and dreary colors represent a not-so-distant past. The regime was crumbling and would last only a few more years, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t come back! The knights served as a warning for a Spain that was experiencing a shift in ideologies and values. When riding on their phantom steeds, they are slowed down to add a greater sense of menace and fear. It also acts as a sort of time/space displacement; they exist between the past and present; they shouldn’t be here, but they are! The first film begins with scenes of an abandoned village; buildings hollowed out, filled with cobwebs and dirt-covered floors, weeds and vines taking over. Eerie Gregorian chants mixed with a cacophony of creepy sounds emphasize the past and old ways. It immediately cuts to modern living, where men and women are shown swimming in pools, drinking and conversing, and wearing the latest fashion trends. Everything is bright and colorful. This juxtaposition tells you of a collision that will soon happen. The original artwork for the poster shows four knights; two in the foreground holding a terrified woman, and two in the background with one holding a sword with a hilt and blade facing down. The sword acts as both weapon and cross, conveying violence and the divine. They represent a threat to sexual freedoms and identity, an extension of the fascist ideals that embody the masculine in the form of the monk-warrior that was perpetuated by Nationalist propaganda going back to the Spanish Civil War. General Franco was portrayed as a religious and military hero, given names like “general-priest,” “Sword of the Highest,” or “Captain of the Vessel.” This fusion of the religious and military was a symbol of oppression for mainly women, as shown in the films with the knights sacrificing virgin women, or any woman in general. 

The first film also features a brief flashback scene, showing a lesbian romance between two of the main characters, Virginia and Betty. They attended a religious school together, sharing a room. Both are dancing around and wearing white see-through gowns. Betty kisses Virginia with a cross clearly visible on the back wall, a reminder that, despite the changes Spain was experiencing, the regime was still there, lurking in the distance, waiting to oppress and terrorize! The following films didn’t contain the layers of the first film. Return of the Evil Dead did feature some small political commentary in the form of Mayor Duncan, a selfish man who cared little for the people of the village he was governing. Night of the Seagulls focused more on the superstitions of villagers, and it was these superstitions that prompted them to offer young women as sacrifices to the undead knights every seven years, for seven consecutive nights. With so much to discuss about these films, does that mean they are cinematic masterpieces? Absolutely not. 

Ossorio was always given a small budget to work with, along with a short timeframe. With the success of Tombs of the Blind Dead, producers were demanding him to quickly make more films. He had to use exploitation production methods to get the films out when the producers wanted them. In the second and fourth films, he reuses footage from Tombs. He cast relatively unknown actors and actresses. The first film’s open ending had to conclude with screams off screen and a freeze frame. For far-away shots in The Ghost Galleon, the ship was a plastic toy shot in a bathtub. The film was Ossorio’s biggest disappointment and most ambitious. This was the case for the other films as well. He stated he never truly got to make the films he wanted because he didn’t have the budget and wasn’t allotted the time he needed. Don’t expect any award-winning performances either. The acting leaves much to be desired, and the dialog, especially in the third film, is laughable at times. Many characters make the most idiotic decisions, and some are so annoying, you want to strangle them! In the U.S., Tombs of the Blind Dead was severely watered down. Nudity and scenes of sexual violence and gore were removed to maintain an “R” rating. Even a scene towards the end where the knights are tearing into a woman, and her blood is pouring down on her daughter’s face, her eyes wide with fear! It’s a truly unsettling scene. In one instance, sketchy distributors altered the opening scene to capitalize on Planet of the Apes (1968). A ridiculous narration was added that talks about the conflict between man and ultra-intelligent apes 3,000 years ago. Humans conquered the apes, capturing and torturing them by piercing their eyes with burning hot pokers. The leader of the apes swore they would come back for revenge! Then the title appears: Revenge from Planet Ape. After that, the rest of the movie remains the same! Ossorio’s last horror film was The Sea Serpent (1984). It was a huge disappointment for him because of the small budget he was given, forced to use cheap special effects. It was his dream project, and its failure led to his retirement in filmmaking in the same year. He was 66 years old. Despite the flaws and gross lack of character development, Ossorio’s Blind Dead cycle makes up for it with spine-chilling atmosphere, violence, gore, and nudity! The films are available on either Blu-ray or DVD, with varying degrees of quality. A definitive copy of Tombs of the Blind Dead was released by Synapse Films, with a gorgeous restoration. It’s packed with special features that give you more insight into his films and Spanish horror in general! With The Blind Dead, Ossorio cemented his legacy, and the unforgettable, unholy knights in the halls of horror history, are still viewed and talked about today! 


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