Tag Archives: Cesar Burner

‘Tombs of the Blind Dead’ Bests the Modern Zombie Movie

The dead ride forth on horseback, brandishing swords, seeking blood to drink in order to prolong their damned existence. Courtesy of Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972), this image is a rather unique sight in the horror genre and one that reminds us of an era before the zombie film was so well-defined. This was an era of remarkable creativity, which, to a modern eye, may seem to break several tenets of the subgenre. But it’s by looking at idiosyncratic early work such as Tombs that we’re able to break free from our assumptions of what a zombie film should be, and point an often-stagnant subgenre towards greener creative pastures.

When George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) hit theaters, a subgenre was born overnight. Romero had created a movie monster that became a staple, lasting until the present day. 

At first, Romero disliked using the term “zombie” to describe his undead antagonists. It was the fans that first applied the moniker, not Romero. They had been written as “ghouls” in the script for Night, as Romero believed that the term “zombie” described the undead servants of a master that had reanimated them through mystical means (as in Haitian folklore). It is this form of the zombie that first found its way into films such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). By Dawn of the Dead (1978) he had come around, and the monsters were referred to in dialogue as “zombies” for the first time.

Forms of zombies could be found in other mediums as well, such as comic books. Vengeance-seeking corpses would often reanimate in the pages of Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear in the 1950s. H.P. Lovecraft would also tackle the theme with Herbert West: Reanimator all the way back in 1922. In fact, the idea of the reanimated dead appears to be as old as our records of storytelling. In The Descent of Ishtar, taken from a Sumerian tablet c. 2100 B.C., mention is made of the dead rising from their graves to eat the flesh of the living. These images have been with us through all recorded history.

What Romero built on top of this legacy would change cinema. It would become a form of cinema as recognizable as the Slasher.

When Amando de Ossorio wrote Tombs of the Blind Dead in 1972, zombies hadn’t even been defined as “zombies” yet. To a modern eye, de Ossorio’s creation at first seems like a patchwork collage of disparate influences. His monsters are the undead revenants of a sect of Knights Templar (although not explicitly referenced, the iconography is unmistakable) that had turned to Satan worship during the Crusades. They discovered the secret to eternal life — drinking the blood of a virgin. While they would achieve immortality, their unholy ways would be discovered and they would be executed as heretics. They were hung from a tree while the crows picked out their eyes. Executions tend to not take on the immortal. However, they would spend their eternal existence without their eyes, inspiring the name: the Blind Dead.

The first thing one notices about the origins of the Blind Dead is that no chemical spill, radiation, or virus causes these undead, but black magic. This is a far cry from the scientific explanations of zombie hordes we’ve become used to, and, in a way, harkens back to the zombie’s Haitian roots.

They are also the architects of their own fate. In most zombie apocalypses, the undead can be viewed with a degree of sympathy. They are also victims of the circumstances, mindless, their humanity stripped. But nobody or nothing took the Blind Dead’s humanity — it was offered freely. Their seemingly grim fate is exactly what they wanted, and they’ll continue to drink the blood of their innocent victims in order to keep it.

As unique as their lore is, however, they are also not so dissimilar as to be unrecognizable as a zombie. Despite the film predating any sort of codification of the trope, a modern viewer will instantly recognize the Blind Dead as a zombie from the visual iconography alone — rotted flesh, and a slow, lumbering gait. But these aren’t the only indicators. Their bite causes victims to reanimate, becoming, perhaps, a more familiar zombie to a modern eye than the Blind Dead themselves.

Complicating the issue, there are other horror tropes mixed into their identity. They drink blood to survive just like a vampire does. They’re referred to in dialogue as ghosts (at least in the English dub). They hold their arms out like Boris Karloff’s Monster. De Ossorio himself would describe the Blind Dead as more of a mummy. But what these have in common is that they are all undead creatures of myth and fable, most ancient, some modern. They all share in their DNA the most human fascination with — and dread fear of — death. We stare our own mortality in the eye when we look at the undead.

It’s difficult to imagine a film like Tombs being produced today, as it stands so distinctly apart from modern zombie apocalypse narratives. But it’s important to remember that de Ossorio was able to experiment so freely because it existed in the era when the zombie film was still trying to find itself. Looking across current work, in films such as Army of the Dead (2021), television like The Walking Dead (2010 – ongoing) and even video games like The Last of Us (2013), we see that the culture has synthesized a narrowly defined vision of what a zombie is, with the same “rules” applied from project to project, and across mediums. Without denigrating those works, I would like to suggest that this doesn’t have to be the case. There is a surprising amount of flexibility within the subgenre, and the zombie film is at its best when it’s at its most experimental. Consider the subgenre’s fruitful blend with comedy in films such as Braindead/Dead Alive (1992) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), or offbeat projects such as Dellamorte Dellamore (1992).

The popularity of the zombie film is also linked to the subgenre taking risks. The adoption of fast zombies would inspire the 2000’s zombie boom, with 28 Days Later (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) adopting the new pace. They were also the first zombie films to outgross the original Dawn, which had held the box office record for the subgenre for almost 25 years. Ignore the trope that zombies are slow and lumbering and an entire wave of films appears to critical acclaim and commercial success.

With a few exceptions, such as Train to Busan (2016) or One Cut of the Dead (2019), The Walking Dead seems to be the last word on the zombie narrative. The subgenre has entered a downturn. There simply aren’t as many projects being made as during the mid to late 2000’s. If the genre is to revive itself, it must remember that rules are made to be broken, and it’s by going back to films in the experimental early years — such as Tombs — that we’re reminded of the possibilities of what the genre could have been, and therefore, what it still could be. All the zombie film needs is another novel spark to rise from the proverbial grave and once again spread through every cinema.