30 April 2009

ATTACK OF THE RETURNED EVIL BLIND DEAD

The first semi-surprising thing about Amando de Ossorio's first sequel to Tombs of the Blind Dead is that it really isn't a sequel in any of the ways that word is usually meant. It's certainly not a classic follow-up in that it looks at the same characters in events subsequent to the first movie; nor is it a Dawn of the Dead-style continuation, taking place later on in what can roughly be thought of as the same chain of events, though in a completely different place from the original. There's no way to shoehorn Return of the Evil Dead into the same chronology as Tombs at all; it is a sequel only in that it uses the same concept as the earlier film, and tells a wholly different story using the same titular undead killers.

In Return of the Evil Dead - actually, if you'll forgive me, I'd like to spend a few minutes talking about that title. The first film, as I mentioned when I reviewed it, is actually titled in Spanish La noche del terror ciego, "The Night of the Blind Terror", making it one of the few times in history when a European horror film's title was improved by its American distributors. The sequel, in Spanish, is El ataque de los muertos sin ojos - "The Attack of the Blind Dead", which not only removes the implication that the same Blind Dead from the first movie are the ones that are returning, it also includes the phrase "Blind Dead", the whole damn reason we're seeing the film in the first place. There are plenty of zombies that could be plausibly called "evil" - and these days, the English title can only really serve to confuse Ossorio's picture with Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead; but you know, they don't pay me to bitch about American distributor's names for movies that were released before I was born. I just want to register my belief that in a saner world, we'd be calling this Return of the Blind Dead, and move on.

So where was I? Ah, yes: in Return of the Evil Dead, we find ourselves once again in a small Portuguese town, here called Bouzano and not Berzano like in the original (this might just be a subtitling issue, but I am pretty sure the actors pronounce the two words differently. It's sometime in the 14th Century, and the local townsfolk have gotten sick and tired of these Satanic Crusaders drinking the blood of virgins right and left. When we join them, they've already gone most of the way to fixing this problem: the knights are bound to stakes, speaking haughty words about how they're going to live forever. The villagers' respond to this claim by blinding the knights with the business end of torches. Do note that in Tombs the story is that the knights were hung in the town square, their eyes pecked out by crows. And let us then return to the notion that this sequel is more of a riff on the first film, instead of anything in the same continuity.

500 years later - or so we are told by a title card, which fails to appreciate the the 1970s are in fact 600 years after the 14th Century - Bouzano is like any number of those little rural European towns in horror movies, where everybody knows everyone else, there's a local ruin with a dark superstition attached to it, and once a year there's a great big festival to celebrate that superstition. Return of the Evil Dead takes place on just such a festival, the quincentennial of the knights' demise. In all those years, there hasn't been a peep out of the blind dead, but all that is going to change if the creepy, lazy-eyed hunchback Murdo (José Canalejas) gets his way. Incidentally, the whole bit where Murdo resurrects the zombies is cut from most English prints of the film, meaning that they have no particular reason for rising and he has no particular reason for existing at all. Let us take this opportunity to once again thank the good people at Blue Underground for making the Spanish version of the film available in such a handsome DVD edition.

While Murdo is skulking around, resurrecting Templars, there's a whole lot of personal drama going on in Bouzano, which boils down to this: Jack (Tony Kendall), the man hired by Mayor Duncan (Fernando Sancho) to put on the fireworks show, used to have a relationship with the mayor's girlfriend, Vivian (Esperanza Roy), and since her attachment to the politician is largely motivated from mercenary concerns, it doesn't take long for the two of them to hook up again, which pleases neither Duncan nor his hatchet-man Howard (Frank Braña), who has been quietly lusting after Vivian ever since she showed up in town.

The first thirty minutes or so of the movie follows this thorny situation, and the gala festivities that take place on the night of Jack's arrival; and then, just when we're starting to get restless, the blind zombies pop up, terrorise a young woman named Moncha (Loreta Tovar) on the outskirts of town, and eventually make their way to the festival, where they kill most of the townspeople except for a handful who make a break for the nearest point of civilisation to seek help, and another handful - conveniently including Jack, Vivian, Duncan, Howard, Moncha, Murdo, and a fella named Bert (Ramón Lillo), his wife Amalia (Lone Fleming), and their daughter (Maria Nuria) - hole up in the church on the town square, hoping to survive until any kind of help comes. Most of the second half of the movie is focused squarely on the people in the church, and the ways that their petty personal squabbling leads directly or indirectly to their death at the Templars' hands.

It is strange to think that after creating Tombs, an undead film notable for so many things, but especially for having a plotline mostly unlike any other in the notoriously derivative zombie subgenre, Ossorio should, in his second Blind Dead picture, embrace with such full-throated enthusiasm almost the exact same plot structure as George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Okay, so let's be fair: if we started discounting zombie movies that didn't baldly rip-off Romero's films, especially the first two, we'd be left with very few zombie movies indeed. And as retreads of Night go, Return of the Living Dead is exceptionally successful. Yet a retread it is, and the precise nature of the retread means that it is not nearly so marvelous and unique as the film that preceded it.

In Tombs, the Blind Dead were a rumor and a myth, only present for perhaps 15 minutes of a 100-minute movie. In this sequel, with its Romero-esque need for the ghouls to be a constant, hovering threat, they're onscreen for something much closer to half of the time, which robs them considerably of their atmospheric quality. Besides that, there's a huge difference between undead knights that shuffle around slowly, hunting for their prey by sound, an undead knights that swing their swords through crowds of screaming people. Return of the Evil Dead commits that most heinous of all horror movie sins: it shows too much, when the effectiveness of Ossorio's zombies previously lied in how very little we actually saw of them. They have become, in this sequel, an antagonistic force to overcome, not a supernatural force that can, at best, only be avoided.

It's not all doom and gloom. I mean, all things considered, this is still a pretty good zombie movie; it just suffers for not being next door to perfect, like the first one. The Blind Dead themselves are, of course, still masterpieces of design; though unless my jaundiced eyes deceive me, the costumes seem a good deal cheaper, more latexey. Maybe that's the fault of how much screentime they get, maybe it's how they were lit. Hell, maybe they really were cheaper. But still, they look way more creepy than just about any other movie zombies out there. And the characters, although none of them are individually as interesting as Bet from Tombs, are probably more developed than is necessary for a genre that is by its nature mostly unconcerned with strong characters. Even the supremely musty "girl torn between her true love and her wealthy boyfriend" subplot is much more engaging than something this clichéd has any possible right to be. I understand that "there are many ways in which it does not suck" is not a rousing defense, but we are talking about a zombie picture here, and you can never take for granted that a zombie picture - especially a European zombie picture - will come even close to justifying its cost in film stock. For this, I must still tip my hat to Ossorio in gratitude.

Reviews in this series
Tombs of the Blind Dead
Return of the Evil Dead
The Ghost Galleon
Night of the Seagulls

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