Color, 1971, 101 mins. 18 secs. / 83 mins. 16 secs.
Directed by Amando de Ossorio
Starring Lone Fleming, César Burner, María Elena Arpón, Joseph Thelman
Synapse Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Blue Underground (US R0 NTSC), Anchor Bay (DVD) (UK R0 PAL), Gabito Barbieri Films (Blu-ray) (Spain R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) (1.66:1)
By the early 1970s, Spanish horror had joined its fellow European nations as a force to be reckoned with in the international horror market. Personalities like Paul Naschy, Jess Franco and Narciso Ibáñez-Serrador were stamping the genre with their own unique visions of sex and violence as strong as the local government would allow; however, the most popular horror series would come from another name, Amando de Ossorio, an experienced director whose only previous horror outing, 1969's Malenka, hit drive-ins as Fangs of the Living Dead. In 1971, he would provide Spain with its most enduring horror creations: the Knights Templar, better known in their undead form as the Blind Dead.
Loosely based on a real-life medieval sect, the Templars made their cinematic debut with Tombs of the Blind Dead (or La noche del terror ciego as it was released in Spain). While vacationing in Portugal with her boyfriend Roger (Burner), pretty Virginia (Arpón) reunites at a hotel swimming pool with school friend Betty (Fleming), or Elizabeth depending which version you watch, whom she experimented with in her youth. The trio decides to continue their trip together, but a spat on a train sends Virginia off and packing to an abandoned monastery for the night. Unfortunately her intrusion awakens the Templars-- undead, eyeless beings on horseback who hunt by sound and use swords and sharp teeth to maim their prey. Soon Betty and Roger are investigating their friend's murder and uncover a centuries-old tale of sacrifices, executions, and bloodthirsty terror from beyond the grave.
Stylish and haunting, this first film gets the series off to a rip-roaring start complete with healthy dollops of gore and atmosphere. De Ossorio makes excellent use of the scenic settings, creating a small town where ghost stories and clueless tourists collide with disastrous results. Of course, the real stars here are the Templars themselves, who get less screen time than subsequent entries but make the most of their attack sequences. The flashback showing their origin (stuck in truncated form at the beginning in the shortened U.S. prints), with a female victim trussed onto a giant cross and slowly tortured by the horse-riding knights, must have been a shocker upon its release and still stands up as a memorable exercise in cinematic sex and sadism. Clearly influenced by Romero's Night of the Living Dead, the nocturnal attack sequences are imaginatively filmed and culminate in a bloody final scene that wraps this installment up on a bleak, despairing note.
Often screened on late-night television (usually under the shortened title The Blind Dead, with Elvira even doing host duties in the 1980s), the film was considerably altered for its dubbed English incarnation, losing the gory climactic sequence and a lesbian flashback interlude among other casualties. Nevertheless, the film remained potent enough to grip viewers of all languages, earning enough to justify a follow-up which equaled its model and even surpassed it in some respects. With its iconic central fiends on horseback and their chilling musical accompaniment, it was inevitable that they would appear again with three very solid sequels to follow (some arguably even better than the original). This is the one that started it all though, and it's had a lengthy home video history including an early, non-anamorphic DVD appearance of the full uncut version from Anchor Bay in 1998. Anchor Bay released the first DVD set of the entire series in 2005 in the U.K., with Blue Underground following suit in 2005. Both of those iterations were anamorphic at last and uncut, though the Blue Underground release (which threw in the U.S. cut) was a very iffy presentation of a PAL source with a sped-up, 97-minute running time and a lot of major motion blurring issues. At least it offered the full Spanish or a hybrid English-Spanish audio option (with respective subtitles) for the feature, which made it valuable for years.
In 2022, Synapse Films released the first widely available English-friendly Blu-ray of the film (pricey Spanish and German options was out there but tough to get), presented as a limited three-disc steelbook release and a slipcover option including a "Tribute to the Templars" audio CD and an insert booklet with an essay by Patrick McCabe. The general retail version from 2023 features both of the Blu-rays as well, and it's a beauty with an immaculate restoration from the camera negative with the uncut version on disc one boasting LPCM 2.0 mono Spanish or hybrid English-Spanish audio options with optional English subtitles for either, plus SDH subs for the hybrid track. Three audio commentary options are included -- including one with Fleming sharing tons of recollections about her entire career and her memories of this film and her director. She has excellent recall, and it's a lively track that Spanish horror films will love as she provides an engaging snapshot of the industry mostly revolving around Madrid. A solo track by Troy Howarth covers all the bases about the film's shooting locations and major participants while also offering some intriguing insights into the film's temporal experimentation, while a join one with the NashyCast podcast's Rod Barnett and Troy Guinn dives into the Spanish horror scene in general and really goes into the history of Ossorio and the creation of the film's soundtrack. The feature-length Marauders from the Mediterranean: The Macabre Magic of the Spanish Zombie Movie (88m55s) kicks off with John Russo talking about the origins and release of Night of the Living Dead before honing in on the '70s Spanish horror wave with Stiges Film Festival deputy director Mike Hostench, John Martin, Kim Newman, Steve Jones, Calum Waddell, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue director Jorge Grau, Fleming, Helga Liné, Manuel de Blas, Antonio Mayans, Jack Taylor, and Paul Naschy’s son Sergio Molina. It's a fun survey of a fairly short period of genre history, touching on all four of the Blind Dead films in depth while also touching on Jess Franco, some of Naschy's films, Horror Express, and more. Ported over from the German release is "Awaking of Spanish Horror Cinema (14m25s) with Marcus Stiglegger analyzing the film's significance as ground zero for the '70s local horror renaissance and a key part of Spain's commercial viability in the genre, while Salem Pop's "Templar's Tears" music video (3m22s) is also a German carryover. Also included is the jaw-dropping U.S. reissue title sequence for Revenge of Planet Ape (3m24s), a bizarre attempt to position this film as an implied part of the Planet of the Apes series with the Templar now blinded simians out for payback against the human race(!). Finally you get the English trailer and a still gallery, while the second Blu-ray features the abbreviated The Blind Dead U.S. cut in identical quality with optional English SDH subtitles.
Blue Underground (DVD)
Updated review on January 16, 2024.