Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Return of the Evil Dead (1973)

Depending on your age, when you think of European horror flicks you probably think of either the Italian zombie/cannibal era of the 70s and 80s or the unexpected Scandinavian horror boom of the last decade or so.  In the early 1970s, however, there were a number of horror films from Spain making their way to U.S. shores.  Among the most recognizable of these is the Blind Dead series, penned and directed by Amando de Ossorio.

I say recognizable rather than well-known because the four movies in the Blind Dead series seem to have about three dozen alternate titles each and they sometimes show up in public domain movie collections with utterly unrecognizable names and misleading descriptions.   Because of this, a fair number of horror fans having seen movies from the series with no idea of what they actually are.  A few years back I encountered the third Blind Dead flick, The Ghost Galleon, in a multi-pack of zombie movies under the title Zombie Flesh Eaters, which of course is also an alternate for Lucio Fulci’s Zombi series.  It gets a little confusing.  The first film was even re-edited and given a new prologue in some U.S. markets to turn into a fake Planet of the Apes sequel called Revenge From Planet Ape.

The films are united more by a central conceit than by an overarching storyline.  Each movie deals with a group of Knights Templar who, steeped in eastern mysticism during the Crusades, have returned to Spain and set up an evil cult that practices sacrifice and blood-drinking.  In each movie the Templars are said to have been overthrown and executed by vengeful peasants, only to rise from the grave in modern times for revenge.  The exact details of this vary from film to film, as does the exact location.  Regardless, the Templars are always said to have been blinded in some gruesome way before being dispatched.  Because of this the Templar revenants must stalk their prey by the sound of their heartbeats, although to be fair I seem to recall this plot element coming into play precisely once across the span of the series.  In general the Blind Dead flicks are more about atmospherics and dread than Fulci-style ultra-violence, so they’re a fun twist on some of the Euro-horror formulas viewers are used to.

Today I want to talk about the second film in the series, which is currently on DVD here in the States under the title Return of the Evil Dead.  It centers around the town of Bouzano in Portugal.  The town is about the celebrate the 500th anniversary of the vanquishing of the bloodthirsty Templars, but the weird cemetery groundskeeper Murdo is plotting to resurrect the wicked knights with a blood sacrifice.  Meanwhile Jack, the pyrotechnician hired to set up the celebratory fireworks display is busy trying to rekindle a lost relationship with Vivian, the fiancĂ© of the mayor. The mayor, for his part, sends his bodyguards to beat up Jack. (The human plot has kind of a telenovela feel to it.)

Murdo kills a local girl and succeeds in awakening the Templars from their tombs, but instead of befriending him as he had hoped, the skeletal knights mount their zombie steeds and make for the village bent on revenge.  The zombie horses are an iconic part of the series and appear in all but one film, but it’s never really clear where they come from in any given movie.  In Return of the Evil Dead we just see skeleton knights crawling out of the crypts, then we cut to an exterior shot and they’re all on horses.  It’s also hard to pin down how many Templars there are – it seems in some scenes like there’s several dozen, while at other points it looks like there’s maybe ten. 

The Templars begin by visiting houses on the outskirts of town, banging on doors and killing anyone who’s foolish enough to answer.  The Templars are a creepy effect – armored and robed skeletons almost always shot in slow motion – and the huge masses of them congregating on houses to slaughter the residents really makes the situation seem hopeless.  This part of the film (and in broad terms the plot in general) reminds me a lot of John Carpenter’s The Fog, which this film pre-dates by seven years, and is a lot of fun.  One enterprising lady escapes by rustling an undead horse and riding it out of town, only to have the Templars catch up and kill her as she stops to warn the guy watching the local train station.

I should note that it’s not entirely clear in any of the films what the zombified Templars are doing to their victims.  In the first film they’d bite (but not eat) their prey, while in this one they usually use swords.  In some of the other movies it looks like they might just be grabbing people and kicking their asses.  It seems to me like they’re not meant to be sustaining themselves by killing their victims; they’re just butchering people for revenge.  That said, in some of the flashbacks sprinkled throughout the series the living Templars are clearly shown to be drinking people’s blood.  Ultimately, what matters is that the Templars are bad news.

The Templars launch a huge cavalry charge against the town square, riding people down and hacking them to death en masse as only a few characters are able to take shelter.  This is a fun scene and is probably the highlight of the film.  Eventually we find all of the principles conveniently locked in a church and the film slows down considerably. The human interactions are not remotely nuanced, and seeing the characters interact during the siege sequence is not nearly as interesting as the similar set up in Night of the Living Dead.  The characters have very little depth – good guys are good guys and bad guys are bad guys no matter what.  The one-dimensionally evil mayor attempts to use a little girl as bait for the zombies so he can escape (after sending the girl’s father to his death in an ill-planned attempt to retrieve a vehicle from outside), while one of his goons attempts to rape a lady because…I dunno, just because.

Overall Return of the Evil Dead is a fairly enjoyable film.  It has its atmospheric moments, but is much more violent than the first movie.  I think most people would compare The Blind Dead series as a whole to some of the Italian zombie movies that were coming out at the same time, but in reality that’s not really a fitting comparison.  This series is much more willing to take things slowly than its Italian counterparts, and more often than not it tries to build suspense though lingering shots of the Templars slowly and inexorably closing in on a victim, rather than going for the jugular with gratuitous, wet violence.  That said, this slow burn doesn’t always hit the mark and there are sections of all of these films that can be kind of boring.  I think Return of the Evil Dead is my favorite of the series, but it’s certainly not without its flaws.  If you’re into foreign horror flicks and are looking for something a little different, you should check it out.  On the other hand, if you’re looking for an awesome popcorn horror flick, you may want to look elsewhere.

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