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Tombs of the Blind Dead Blu-ray Review


Synapse Films

Blu-ray Release: October 24, 2023

Video: 1.66:1/1080p/Color

Audio: English, Spanish, English/Spanish hybrid track LPCM 2.0 Mono (integral cut only)

Subtitles: English, English SDH, English hybrid subtitles

Run Time: 101:08 (integral cut), 83:16 (US cut)

Director: Amando de Ossorio


A trio of friends embark on a camping trip that quickly turns to blood curdling horror as a legion of long-dead Knights Templar rise from their graves in search of human flesh! When the Templars were originally executed for their cannibalistic rituals, they were hanged outside to die as crows pecked out their eyes. Now, armed with ancient swords and riding their skeletal undead horses into the night looking for prey, these mummified creatures cannot see and hunt purely by sound alone. (From Synapse’s official synopsis)



Spanish horror had a late start following decades of political struggles, culminating in a civil war that was won by fascist-led Nationalists. Generalissimo Francisco Franco was installed as dictator and ruled an oppressive, sometimes violent totalitarian regime from 1936 until his death in 1975. During Franco’s reign, Spanish cinema (all of their art and entertainment, actually) fell victim to strict, government-imposed censorship. However, thanks in part to looser control over imported entertainment, interest in horror grew in popularity. Then, beginning in the early 1960s, censorship restrictions were slightly diluted to permit fantasy terrors and costumed horrors set outside of Spain*.


The period launched the careers of a handful of luminaries, led by Paul Naschy (aka: Jacinto Molina Álvarez) and his favorite collaborators, Javier Aguirre, León Klimovsky, and Carlos Aured, as well as Jesus ‘Jess’ Franco (who soon left Spain to avoid the censors), Jorge Grau, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, and Amando de Ossorio. After trying his hand at a couple of westerns with Tomb of the Gunfighter (Spanish: La tumba del pistolero, 1964) and Hudson River Massacre (Spanish: Rebeldes en Canadá, 1965), de Ossorio’s had an early horror hit 1969’s Malenka (aka: Fangs of the Living Dead), but that was merely a trial run for his career-defining film: Tombs of the Blind Dead (Spanish: La noche del terror ciego, 1972).



The titular Blind Dead represent Spanish horror’s first successful attempt to introduce a completely original monster to the Euro-Gothic pantheon. Previously, Naschy and company had attempted to reinvent monsters from classic literature and Universal’s early sound horrors as their own, creating variations on the Wolf Man, Dracula, and others, but the Blind Dead were different and created wholecloth utilizing a mix of untapped European history, specifically the Crusading Catholic shock troops known as the Knights Templar, pieces of Sevillian writer Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer's Gothic tale El Monte de las Ánimas (pub. 1862), and the concept of flesh-eating undead as invented by George A. Romero for the then-contemporary Night of the Living Dead (1968). Visually, the Templars draw upon the Universal Mummy and Grim Reaper figures, but the thing that really gives these otherwise brittle, lethargic ghouls their power is cinematographer Pablo Ripoll’s slow-motion photography. You might not remember the plot of Tombs of the Blind Dead or the names of any of its characters, but it’s hard to shake the phantasmagoric image of hooded, skeletal men galloping through ruins astride their spectral horses.


Often celebrated as a variation on zombies and vampires that pre-dates the post-Dawn of the Dead (1978) boom of European zombie movies, Tombs of the Blind Dead also belong to the pantheon of old world monsters that rise up (in this case literally) to punish the younger generation. There are different versions of this trope, like Mario Bava’s Baron Blood (Italian: Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga, 1972), where the theme feels like an aesthetic war between the Gothic architecture and kitschy modernism, or Alan Gibson’s Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), where hippies are messing with ancient evils beyond their ken. Tombs of the Blind Dead reframes the idea as a moral battle pitting some of the most notoriously hypervigilant religious zealots in history against counterculture youth and their lax moral standards. It’s easy enough to read as a precursor to the sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll = death rules of ‘80s slasher movies.



That said, the film isn’t particularly judgmental, nor are the Blind Dead explicitly objecting to their lifestyles (they just want to drink blood). The lesbian relationship between Virginia (María Elena Arpón) and Betty (Lone Fleming) is just barely exploited for the sake of titillation and, in the context of the story, their falling out and Virginia’s death aren’t a punishment for their ‘lifestyle choices.’ It’s more likely that De Ossorio is playing with a familiar scenario made famous by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), in which the person we think is the main character stumbles upon a horror and is unceremoniously killed, changing the nature of the conflict and leading the surviving characters to investigate her death. It’s not a particularly good piece of lesbian representation, but it is sort of progressive for not framing Virginia and Betty’s affection for each other as anything but tragically unrequited love. At least until de Ossorio kind of botches the entire tone of the film by having Betty raped by an otherwise inconsequential character.


It’s also worth noting that, despite the convenience of a moral crusade as a theme, the Templars are depicted as a very un-Christian, excommunicated murder cult during the flashbacks. Their bloodthirst isn’t tied to righteous indignation, rather, they are literally blood-thirsty as a result of the brand of devil worship they practiced during the Middle Ages. The metaphor of the Blind Dead doesn't work very well as a cautionary tale about promiscuity and sexual freedom, but does work as a warning against the true intentions of moral crusaders. At the risk of giving de Ossorio too much credit for his spooky little zombie movie, they might actually represent Franco’s censors. Whichever way you slice it, the underlying theme still pertains to the old world attacking and devouring the new – something that takes on a larger meaning when, at the end of the film, they climb aboard a runaway steam train and take their show on the road to a modern Portugal town with electricity, running water, and motorvehicles.


Tombs of the Blind Dead was popular enough to spawn three official sequels – Return of the Evil Dead (Spanish: El Ataque de los Muertos Sin Ojos, 1973), The Ghost Galleon (Spanish: El Buque Maldito, 1974), and Night of the Seagulls (Spanish: La Noche de las Gaviotas, 1975) – all written & directed by Ossorio, and would inspire a number of unofficial sequels and spin-offs, including John Gilling’s The Devil’s Cross (Spanish: La cruz del diablo, 1975; co-written by Naschy), Jess Franco’s Mansion of the Living Dead (Spanish: La mansión de los muertos vivientes, 1982), and two recent, super-low budget movies: Raffaele Ricchio’s Curse of the Blind Dead (2021) and Chris Alexander’s Scream of the Blind Dead (also 2021). For better or worse, de Ossorio was typecast as a Gothic horror director with ties to folklore. Between Blind Dead sequels he made The Loreley’s Grasp (Spanish: Las Garras de Lorelei, 1973), Night of the Sorcerers (Spanish: La Noche de los Brujos, 1974), and Demon Witch Child (Spanish: La Endemoniada, 1974). As the home video era rolled around, he turned to pornography to pay the bills, but had one last shot at the big time with The Sea Serpent (Spanish: Serpiente de mar, 1982), an ambitious giant monster adventure starring an international cast that nonetheless flopped.


* In accordance with the rule, Tombs of the Blind Dead takes place in Portugal.


Bibliography

  • Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984 by Pete Tombs (St. Martin's Griffin, 1995)



Video

Tombs of the Blind Dead was first released on North American big box VHS by Canadian company Montevideo Entertainment. This was followed much later by a 1.66:1 letterboxed tape from Anchor Bay, which was the basis for the company’s non-anamorphic DVD in 1998. In 2005, Blue Underground put together a Blind Dead collection, featuring all four movies in anamorphic video. The first Blu-ray was a 2010 four-movie set from German company Carol Media, followed by a 2018 Austrian edition from XT Video and a 2021 Spanish edition from Gabita Barbieri Films.


Synapse finally released a completely English-friendly Blu-ray in 2022 as a limited edition with an exclusive musical tribute CD. That transfer was made using a 2K scan of the original 35mm camera negative and is reused here for this standard edition reissue (minus the CD). Short of a 4K scan and UHD release, the 1.66:1, 1080p transfer is probably as close to original release accuracy as we can expect from a half-century old Spanish horror movie from the Franco era. It’s grainy and gets downright fuzzy during those cheesecloth flashbacks, but it all looks natural and never gets in the way of important textures and patterns. Details are tight and edges are sharp, but the image isn’t marred by haloes. The grading matches what I’ve seen from the film on VHS and DVD, skewing towards harsher contrasts, which helps punch-up the primary colors and bulk-up the blacks. Highlights are a little blown-out in wide shots, but it’s a worthwhile sacrifice.


Like the XT Video disc, Synapse has also included the option to watch either the shorter US cut, under the title The Blind Dead, or an integral version made up of the original Spanish cut and all of the extra sex & violence that was added to international releases of the film. For what it’s worth, I didn’t notice any sizable differences between the Spanish and international footage while watching the integral cut.



Audio

Tombs of the Blind Dead is presented with a couple of audio options, depending on which version you watch. The US cut is fitted only with an English dub track, but the integral cut can be watched either in Spanish or with a hybrid mix that switches over to Spanish with subtitles during any scene that wasn’t dubbed in English. It should be noted that, like most Spanish films from this period, the movie was shot largely without sound, so all tracks are dubbed. The two language recordings are similarly mixed with basically identical effects and music levels. The English track comes ahead a hair in terms of dialogue clarity, while the Spanish track has better performance quality. Composer Antón García Abril was a regular for Spanish horror throughout the ‘70s and wrote music for all of the Blind Dead movies (actually, most of de Ossorio’s horror films). He mixes some particularly avant-garde atmospheric compositions with Gregorian-like chants, and a sort of calliope love theme. The music has an expectedly muffled quality whenever it’s placed in the back of the mix, but has nearly stereo quality depth when given the chance to breathe.



Extras

Disc 1: Integral cut (101:08)

  • Commentary with Troy Howarth – The critic and author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2015) does another great job digging into the guts of a European horror movie. Howarth kicks things off by acknowledging that there will be multiple tracks on this disc and that he’s going to do his best to not overlap with the Naschycast podcasters (see below). He focuses a bit more on characters, themes, and general criticism than the other commentators, but also does his usual thing by breaking down the careers of the cast & crew, the laborious production process, the music and sound design, and drawing comparisons to other Spanish and Italian horror films from the era.

  • Commentary with Lone Fleming – The lead actress is essentially interviewed by moderator/author/producer/director Calum Waddell and discusses the impact of Tombs of the Blind Dead, the making of the film (including plenty of fun anecdotes not related to the movie itself), shooting on location, working with the cast and de Ossorio (she also appears in Return of the Evil Dead), interacting with fans over the years, her famous filmmaker husband Eugenio Martín (who she reveals doesn’t like horror movies or westerns!), and her efforts to get a new Blind Dead off the ground.

  • Commentary with Rod Barnett & Troy Guinn – Despite his best efforts, the Spanish horror experts and hosts of the Naschycast podcast actually do overlap a lot with Howarth, but it’s alright, because they bring a different perspective and energy. They talk about the creation of the Blind Dead in a little more detail than Howarth, including the history of the real-world Knights Templar and the cultural clash between young audiences and conservative fascist Spain in the mid-’70s, which led directly to the boom in horror. This is an unusual case of a disc having more than two really good commentaries and I recommend listening to all three.

  • Alternate Revenge from Planet Ape US reissue opening sequence (3:24, HD) – That’s right, American distributors did try to cash-in on the Planet of the Apes series with an opening narration that claims the Blind Dead are zombies from a failed ape uprising, rather than Templar Knights.

  • Awakening of Spanish Horror Cinema (14:25, HD) – This introduction by film historian, filmmaker, composer, and professor Dr. Marcus Stiglegger is taken from the 2018 XT Video Blu-ray collection of all four films.

  • Salem’s Pop “Templar’s Tears” music video (3:22, HD)

  • Marauders from the Mediterranean: The Macabre Magic of the Spanish Zombie Film (88:55, HD) – This new documentary by Naomi Holwill, director of Fascism on a Thread: The Strange Story of Nazisploitation Cinema (2019), takes an extensive look back on the history of Spanish zombies – with emphasis on the Blind Dead tetraolgy, a couple of Paul Naschy movies, a couple of Jess Franco movies, and Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (Spanish: No profanar el sueño de los muertos; aka: Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, 1974) – late-stage Franco filmmaking in the region, and European filmmakers’ reaction to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in general, and includes interviews with actors Fleming, Manuel de Blas, Jack Taylor, and Helga Liné, Night of the Living Dead co-writer John Russo, Grau, Naschy’s son Sergio Molina, and authors/experts Waddell, Kim Newman, Mike Hostench, John Martin, and Steve Jones.

  • Image gallery

  • US theatrical trailer


Disc 2

  • US Blind Dead cut (83:16)


The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.


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