The first of a series of four films, Tombs of the Blind Dead has been described as Spain’s Night of the Living Dead, although its undead foes resemble resurrected, vengeful mummies more than zombies. It’s short on gore, concentrating more on creating a tense, slow-burning atmosphere and, while there are times when this is no doubt effective, overall – with the exception of some memorable sequences – it fails to make much of an impression.
It’s clear early on that it’s necessary to suspend one’s disbelief and accept that much of the simple plot relies on characters making illogical and daft decisions – most notably Virginia’s (Maria Elena Arpon) decision to abandon her friends Betty (Lone Flemming) and Roger (Cesar Burner) and spend the night alone in an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere. With an ominous monastery dominating the ruins, and a ramshackle graveyard in the grounds, it’s inevitable that things will end badly for the stubborn brunette. Despite a lengthy portion of the film’s running time devoted to Virginia’s evening in the crumbling town, we learn next to nothing about the character; earlier conversations between her and her companions regularly slip into overwrought or stilted melodrama (although they also provide an opportunity for a gratuitous lesbian flashback, as the two girls remember their time at a convent school). Following Virginia’s petulant decision to leave her pals, due to their newfound interest in each other, she wanders around the ruins, dresses for bed and, in an impressive display of complete nonchalance regarding her surroundings, settles down to read a book. Unbeknownst to her, when night falls the Knights of the East (clearly Templars, though they are never explicitly referred to as such) rise from their graves, and soon she’s being terrorised by hooded, eyeless monsters.
The Knights themselves are, initially at least, unsettling and creepy – blind because several centuries ago their fearsome, ritualistic sect had their eyes pecked out by crows following their hanging. They hunt by listening for their prey, though poor Virginia never realises this and helpfully screams constantly. Although both their appearance and purpose differs from traditional zombies (they rise each night from their graves, and make deliberate, specific decisions), they share the former’s slow movements – director Amando de Ossorio has slowed down their scenes, creating a haunting delicacy to their motions. With the exception of the sound of their horses’ hooves pounding across the town’s stone streets, they glide silently across the landscape and, despite Virginia’s best efforts, the hunt is soon over.
Curiously, the film’s most effective aesthetic is also narratively one of the weakest points – like George A Romero’s zombies, the Knights could logically easily be bested because of their slowness. Their horses (draped in rags, but apparently still living and breathing) do increase their range and speed, but the undead men barely move, instead apparently relying on their prey’s similar lack of movement. It’s difficult to watch without wanting to shout at the screen, “just run, RUN AWAY!” and this irritation is an unfortunate distraction. Problematic too is the repetition of certain scenes, namely those involving the Knights’ resurrection – not because they are not reasonably impressive considering the film’s obviously low budget, but because they naturally are less effective once it becomes clear they are recycled. The film’s budget reveals itself a number of times, detracting from the more accomplished features (the score in particular works well) – day and night are interchangeable, while a flashback cannibalistic, ritualistic rape suffers from disappointing special effects, particularly the bizarre decision to use a fake female torso in close-ups.
Yet a film like Tombs of the Blind Dead is rarely watched by viewers expecting, or desiring, an in-depth character study, flawless narrative structure or impeccable effects. The pacing improves following Virginia’s death, and the decision to move beyond the isolated, abandoned monastery works in the film’s favour. Subsequent sequences, particularly those in the morgue and in a mannequin workshop, are by far the most memorable; the latter in particular is horribly creepy and tense, and visually creates a lasting impression.
The film’s final moments are frequently discussed (in vague terms) in other reviews and, while the events are fairly inevitable, they efficiently broaden the Knights’ opportunities for carnage and mayhem – although in this outing at least, said carnage predominantly occurs off camera. Although it is clear that de Ossorio deliberately chose to focus on atmosphere over blood and guts, and there is nothing wrong with this, in an era and genre that includes Zombie Flesh Eaters , The Beyond, and numerous others, this film makes considerably less of an impact. As I don’t have the sequels (Return of the Blind Dead, The Ghost Galleon, and Night of the Seagulls) in my collection, I cannot say whether the action is ramped up in the sequels or not; unfortunately, while Tombs of the Blind Dead was occasionally eerie and generally adequate, it failed to inspire me enough to find out.