The 2021 Fantasia Festival continues with a spate of new and exciting genre films. So, obviously, I feel compelled to review a film from 1972. Spanish horror Tombs of the Blind Dead recently screened at Fantasia with a new restoration courtesy of Synapse Films – who are set to release a new blu-ray edition. On atmosphere alone, it’s something to behold. Our Culture reviews the film here for its selection from the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Tombs of the Blind Dead starts with a young woman spending the night in the ruins of an abandoned medieval village. Undead ghouls emerge from a graveyard in the village square and chase her down. The next day, the woman’s friends set out to find her. The discovery of her body, chewed and bloody, leads them to a local legend about the Knights Templar. For their efforts to gain immortality, these Knights were executed, and their eyes pecked out by birds. But it seems these Knights may have succeeded in their endeavour, for they’re back to seek the blood of the living – finding their victims through the sound of their very heartbeats!
While Italy has produced some of the most striking zombie films ever made – Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), Zombi Holocaust (1980), Burial Ground (1981), etc. – Spain has given us some remarkable hits as well. Most notable is the ecologically-charged The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974) a.k.a. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, but Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead distinguishes itself in its visual prowess and sound design. Right from the opening titles, you’re hit with an unsettling combination of echoing religious chants, eerie clanks, and images of the abandoned village. Synapse’s new restoration makes this all the more impressive, for the richness of colour is better than in any previous print.
Speaking of colour, the film falls somewhere between Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. Director Ossorio – who would go on to direct three more Blind Dead sequels – adds flare to almost every shot. Whether it’s a conspicuously-swinging light in a gloomy coroner’s office, or a set of mannequins drenched in blood-red neon, Tombs of the Blind Dead recalls Bava’s colourful Planet of the Vampires (1965) but with hints of Fulci’s bloody sensibilities from later works like The Beyond (1981).
Admittedly, the characters are thin, with little development beyond the bare minimum needed to move the story along. But that’s okay. This is a film whose power is built on atmosphere. As soon as we step foot inside the medieval village, the film oozes with menace and discomfort. It speaks volumes that the location seems just as unnerving in daylight as it does at night – when it actively looks hostile and threatening.
The quality of Synapse’s scan is astounding, but perhaps more exciting is the news that their release aims to include all cuts of the film. In an interview with Rue Morgue, Synapse president Don May jr. explained that their upcoming release would even include the infamous Revenge from Planet Ape release – bizarrely assembled by a US distributor to cash in on the financial success of 20th Century Fox’s Planet of the Apes franchise. This version features a prologue clumsily explaining that, “super-intelligent apes struggled with man to gain control of this planet” around 3,000 years ago. The background of the Knights was excised, and they were passed off as undead apes. Thrilling!
This new restoration has been a highlight of this year’s Fantasia Festival. This critic cannot wait to add Synapse’s upcoming blu-ray to his collection.