My family moved to Los Angles in the early-80s from Michigan. For me, it was horror movie mecca. In Michigan Channel 50 out of Detroit showed horror movies on a Saturday afternoon, mostly Universal monster films and 50s science fiction horror. I remember being terrified by The Horror of Party Beach. But Los Angeles, ah! Los Angeles was different. For an eleven year old in the 1980s, you had channels 9, 11, and 13 all vying for your attention. Sure, there was Elvira late into the night with Movie Macabre, but more than that. Starting in the morning with kung fu theatre and stretching on all afternoon with seventies action films and horror movie after horror movie. It was these afternoon showcases where I first saw European horror, where I first learned to love horror. Where I first saw Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead.
The film was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Even baldly dubbed and chopped up in commercials, there was something frightening and really unnerving to my young sensibilities. These were not George Romero’s zombies, which would be the only real film zombie equivalent at the time. There wasn’t the omnipresence of zombies all over popular culture. It didn’t look like any other monster out there. Not vampires. Not werewolves. Not mummies. Not radioactive creatures. These were the undead. Ossorio adds a strange historical mythos to his zombies. The flashbacks to the Knights Templar being blinded and put to death, being blinded(!), are unnerving. Even the horses for crying out loud!
My parents loved classic films, and I’d been exposed to cinema in many forms, but nothing prepared me for this. The moody, atmospheric photography, the distaff almost impersonal performances, like somnambulists trapped in an inescapable nightmare overwhelmed me. It’s the utter alien landscape Ossorio builds up, the utter creepiness. This is the true genius of the film. It’s the slow movement and repetition of close-ups and jarring skeletal faces, the unnatural leers of the human characters, the galloping skeletal horses that punctuate the night, the slow motion heads turning, slowly turning. All of this builds up the dread, the inescapable fate, the inexorable flow of death. This is where the true fright comes from. You cannot hide from the blind dead. They cannot see you. They can only feel your presence. They can hear you. They can hear your heartbeat. They can hear your heart pounding in your ears. They can hear your pulse. Everywhere. There is no escape. Ever.
And it’s more than just the blind dead Templars. The entire film breathes incipient madness. An entire sequence is devoted to shadows in a mannequin factory for no discernable reason except to ratchet up the tension. In other words, it has terror going for it in spades. 1971 was the twilight of Francisco Franco’s reign in Spain. El Caudillo still held a firm grip on Spanish society when Ossorio wrote and directed Tombs, his most famous film, and that Spain drips from every recess of the film, the thinly veild mocking of authority, the utter uselessness of bureaucracy, the senselessness of those in poor. It’s an interesting, subtle critique of Spain dressed up in ghoulish, barbaric dress. You can kill the authority, but it will come back from the dead, it will find you, no matter where you are, no matter who you are, no matter how quiet you are. And it will kill you dead. Dead dead dead.
As a teen, it stuck with me. These are my zombies. I’m not a Romero man. I’m not a fast-moving plague infested zombie man. It’s all about Blind Templars on skeletal horses in slow motion riding herd through the night on the helpless sheep. Moreover, Tombs was a gateway film for me. I wouldn’t love Argento and Bava as I do if I hadn’t first seen Ossorio. I wouldn’t have been prepared for the madness without first seeing the blind.
As an adult, this film still holds its grip on me. It’s my favorite horror film. Period. It’s dank. It’s perverse as only a nightmare world can be. And it’s damn spooky. I’m not prone to nightmares. I don’t dream. Especially about film. But Tombs, well it will stick with you well into the night.
Joe Hilliard. Writer. Columnist. Luddite. Teller of Tales. His work can soon be seen in His work can be read in APB: Artists Against Police Brutality from Rosarium Press and The Legends of New Pulp Fiction from Airship 27. His current column Eat This Kitten can be found on the Asylum Ink website.