You know how sometimes you’re on a train, going to some glamorous destination spot, and you hop off because you’re mad at your boyfriend, and then you end up accidentally disturbing the resting place of an order of evil knights who’ve become bloodthirsty mummies? Right, it happens to everybody. In fact, we’re inundated with books, movies, and television programs about this very thing. Oh, wait, no, sorry. This doesn’t ever happen and has only got a couple of movies about it. In fact, we only have Spanish filmmaker Amando de Ossorio to thank for this concept even existing, as he made a series of horror films in the 1970s which satiated the world’s desire to be scared of knights from the Crusades. The best of these is the very first one, La Noche del Terror Ciego (or “Night of the Blind Terror”), given the fantastic English title of Tombs of the Blind Dead.
Having made a vampire movie in 1969, de Ossorio struck a chord in 1971 with what would be his most ingenious idea. And truly, the best thing about this movie is the idea of the monsters. The Knights Templar were probably the most famous and infamous Christian fighting units during the Crusades. Known for their white mantles with the red cross, they were the Catholic Church’s official Fight-For-God-ers during the 1100s. This lasted about 200 years until they were disbanded under charges of heresy and, as the movie proposes, witchcraft. In the film, a small group of extremist Knights Templar were rounded up, crucified, and then buried for their dark deeds, including torture and murder. Their eyes were pecked out as they hanged in the square, causing them to be blind when they resurrect to seek their revenge.
The story proper follows a couple on holiday who run into a mutual female friend they haven’t seen in quite a long while. Things are pleasant enough at first, until the boyfriend invites this old friend to travel with them. The girlfriend is very uneasy about this, as she’s worried about her boyfriend’s clear attraction to this friend and embarrassed about the lesbian tryst she had with the woman in college. So, what’s the logical thing to do? She jumps off the train in the middle of nowhere. Having no idea where she is, she walks alone in the countryside until she happens upon some ancient ruins where she decides to hole up for the night. That’s maybe the best idea anyone has ever had. I’ve never been in this predicament, but damn skippy, I’d sleep out in the wide open rather than go into ancient ruins at night. Doesn’t she know what could happen?
Well, I can’t imagine she’d have been able to guess. What happens is she disturbs the resting place of these evil, angry, blind knights and reawakens their ancient evil. As they’re blind, they hunt their prey by sound, leading to some excellent hiding in the wide open with her hands over her mouth. She is eventually killed and partially eaten by the Blind Dead and is discovered the next morning by a local. Her boyfriend and ex-lover then spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out what happened to her, though they aren’t prepared for her to get up and start stalking and killing people as well. This leads to the eventual showdown between the good guys and the evil sightless mummies.
Like a lot of European horror movies of the decade, Tombs of the Blind Dead starts strong but sort of loses its way the further on it goes. This being said, there are some truly awesome scare scenes. Like the aforementioned scene of the Knights waking and stalking the girlfriend, there is another scene of the zombie girlfriend stalking a female character through, of all creepy places, a store room full of mannequins. How do you hide when everything looks like the person trying to murder you? The answer is: not very effectively. The lighting in this scene really adds to the unease of the whole situation and de Ossorio is pretty great at showing the audience there’s something lurking behind a character even if they don’t see it.
The look of the Knights themselves is quite different. Their faces are rubber skull masks, but ones that look vaguely simian, with a protruding and long jaw and wispy dead-guy beards. They look so much like apes that one of the initial ideas for the film’s English-language release was to rewrite and re-cut it to be (and I’m not kidding about this) a sequel to Planet of the Apes where in the distant-er future, the post-apocalyptic Earth is being terrorized by undead chimpanzees. Lucky for us, this was abandoned, likely because it’s stupid. The movement of the Knights is fluid and deliberate, giving them a strange, ethereal quality. This is made even more evident when the Knights ride horses. De Ossorio shoots them riding in slow-motion to give the horses a dreamy, ghostly appearance.
Perhaps one of the most infamous scenes from this film is a flashback involving a pretty, curvaceous blonde girl being tied up and tortured by the living Knights Templar. They ride around her on horseback and swing swords at her, cutting her body to ribbons in short, shallow slices. Is her top off for this? Well, it’s a horror movie made in Europe in the 1970s, so it’s pretty safe to assume; yes, her top is off for this. This scene was changed a lot for the American version, moving it from the middle of the film to the very beginning and truncating most of the nudity and gore. It may start the movie off in a more visually striking way, but the scene loses much of its impact. Happily, both versions of the movie are available on DVD so you can choose for yourself.
Tombs of the Blind Dead is a really interesting, if slightly uneven horror film. While not as indelible as some movie monsters, the mummified Knights Templar, hunting through sound, is a unique addition to the pantheon of horror movies. This movie led to de Ossorio making three sequels: Return of the Evil Dead, The Ghost Galleon, and, perhaps the least terrifying title in all of scary movies, Night of the Seagulls. Still, it’s the first installment that makes the most impact, and is well worth a look.