Friday, 26 October 2012

Horror Season II - 'The Zombie Dead'

AKA: Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror

Bruno Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh is hard to top in the trash stakes, as I reluctantly noted last year. But let’s face the facts; it was only a small portion of the festering Spaghetti Zombie sub-genre. There's more... so much more. 

One of the nastiest little footnotes in Italian cinema is 1981’s The Zombie Dead, directed by Andrea Bianchi. With a title like that, you would immediately expect a conventional and uninspired exercise in the lowest common denominator pleasing extreme, and that's exactly what you get. I mean, it was either this or The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, but that actually has a degree of class! So no.

First things first: my DVD is part of the Beyond Terror label, known for releasing grunge like this at a budget price. Although I should point out how the Beyond Terror brand only applies to the outer casing. Opening it reveals a repackaged Vipco disc. Before they went bust, Vipco were pretty much the name in bringing classic horror to UK shelves. Their ‘Vaults of Horror’ range from early last decade was popular among British collectors, but most releases were of a dubious quality and often censored.

As luck would have it, Zombie Dead is not cut at all. In fact, this disc marked the film’s uncut UK debut, with over ten minutes of gory goodness restored (the censors went to town on this one). The transfer isn’t anamorphic, but at least it’s still presented in the correct widescreen aspect ratio. No extras to speak of, but if you’re a fan, then chances are you’ve already imported Shriek Show’s Blu-ray from the States. I can’t comment on that release’s overall quality, but I’m sure a polished turd metaphor can be worked in somewhere.     

Credit where it’s due – Zombie Dead doesn’t waste any time (or, by extension, have any notion of suspense). It opens with a most magnificently bearded Professor who reads a book, is struck with a revelation, heads down to a nearby dig site, hammers a chisel into a wall and, hey presto, zombie apocalypse. It happens so fast, the guy might as well live directly above hell.

After having his face chewed off, we’re introduced to the other characters. I’ll be able to remember very few names, but there’s foppish guy, 60s starlet wannabe, nympho mistress, Italian porno dude (it’s possible) and a married couple who’ve brought their son Michael along. A bunch of promiscuous socialites, they’re friends of the professor who’ve come to stay at his mansion for a weekend of fine dining and fornication... such is the summation of Zombie Dead’s first twenty minutes.

Soft core padding aside, the absolute worst part of it all is Michael. Rest assured, this film has gained a hefty cult following, but it’s not due to the zombie disembowelling shenanigans. Nuh uh. For the uninitiated, Michael is a young boy... played by a thirty year-old vertically challenged man named Peter Bark (who has since dropped off the face of the earth).

With his saucer eyes, ridiculous toupee and that high-pitched dub job, Bark’s already terrifying enough. But just to crank up the creepy, Michael is close to his mother. Very close. As in: ‘daddy is my competition’ close. It all kicks off when Michael walks in on his parents at a non-PG rated moment, and remains a constantly uncomfortable subplot throughout.   

Meanwhile (thank Christ), the zombies begin to leave their underground tombs. They don’t make a big groaning deal out of it, and prefer to walk in silence while the film’s dated synth soundtrack blares over their mass exeunt. It looks like the undead equivalent of a Monday morning commute to work. Frankly, I’m not convinced many of the actors can even see through their masks (slash caked-on mud), which might explain their careful approach to scaling knee-high ledges. 

 Careful... easy does it...

While all this is underway, the film’s patchwork editing style becomes alarmingly obvious. It cuts from various frolicking in the mansion grounds, back to the Professor’s two servants being terrorised by a sudden surge of exploding light bulbs (maybe the undead menace has a degree of outer body Evil Dead force). Butler guy looks on with bemused curiosity while the maid covers her face and screams in horror! I mean, it’s weird, yeah, but not Anthony Perkins shower-stabbing you scary.

Soon after, we abruptly switch to Michael’s father showing his wife how to fire a gun down in the professor’s cellar (full of many priceless archaeological finds, no doubt) while their son sulks between shots. Already, so many questions... why does he have a gun? Did he bring it? Is this normal vacation luggage for him? Why here? Why now? Why rope your wife into it? Why let Michael wander around in range of the weapon? What are you even aiming at!?   

Oh that’s right, zombies. Now he’s got something moving (albeit a shambling mess of basic motor skills) to shoot at. As per tradition, the cadavers’ first appearance results in utter confusion because nobody on the Professor’s guest list saw Night of the Living Dead. For his ignorance, Michael Sr. becomes the first to have his spleen forcibly removed (leaving the door, lest we forget, wide open for his son’s incestuous desires).

To be fair, he does get a few shots in. Nowhere near the head, of course, but it’s all a learning curve with these dingbats. In a neat touch, Bianchi’s crustier brand of zombies don’t bleed the red stuff when maimed. Instead they’re filled with a vile, brown liquid that sloshes out from newly formed orifices like, well… use your imagination. Yeah, you got it.

Following numerous outdoor escapades, one involving a bear trap (again with the questions), everyone rushes inside to hold out for the night. So it’s your basic undead siege movie, then? Not quite. These zombies aren’t your basic walking corpses. They’re crafty. They actively look for new ways to get inside the mansion, initially raiding the garden shed for pointy tools to hammer the doors with, before climbing the building’s pillars to execute a sneak attack (really); and those not on the offensive patiently wait outside for someone to make a mistake.

Case in point: the maid is dispatched upstairs to check for open windows. Of course, she finds one and cautiously goes to close it. While reaching outside, we see a zombie lurking in the bushes. Clutching something pointy, its arm raises slowly, almost as though its... aiming. Then SHWUMP – her hand gets nailed against the wall in a startling display of undead accuracy! Incredulously, she forgets about her other arm, and can only look on, screaming, as the stealthy posse of zombies lurking below raise a scythe up above her head and slowly bring it down, sawing through her neck.  Teamwork!

When it isn’t being so brilliantly inspired, The Zombie Dead is quite happy to recycle memorable bits from certain other shlock masterpieces, such as the obligatory ‘rising from the earth’ shot featuring a zombie with one maggot-infested eye socket that evokes a similar moment from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. It some territories this was even marketed as a sequel to Fulci’s film, a feat that probably would’ve been quite easy given the number of ghouls with whole worms dangling from their decayed skulls. It’s either that, or fake eyes about the size of a toddler’s fist. 

 OR mad scientist hair.

And when a rotting arm pulls one female character face-first through a broken window – the shards of which slice apart her face – it’s hard not to be reminded of a particular ‘splinter to the eyeball’ kill from the aforementioned Euro classic. But in a final, amusing touch, the zombie pulls too hard and ends up flying backwards still clinging onto a chunk of her scalp. Sounds dark, and believe me, it might have been had the zombie not careered into the night like he’d just lost his balance on a step-ladder!          

Meanwhile, some of the more canny undead have finished scaling the outer walls, leading to Zombie Dead’s big, set-piece action sequence! It mostly involves one traumatised victim poking her shambling attackers away with a spear before the MANLY MEN rush in with swords to save the day in a perpetual orgy of decrepit heads being smashing open in slow motion.  

It’s right around now when the incest factor reaches its most unpleasant stage (as if it was ever bearable). After a brush with death, Michael decides to, oh no, how do I type this ... make his move on mummy dearest, as it were. This is usually such a family friendly blog, so I won’t go into too much detail over how he smothers her with kisses and runs a hand up her skirt while lamenting those long-gone breastfeeding days urrgrawthisistoomuch.    

To the surprise of absolutely no one living or dead (it might not even be acting), mama smacks Michael away in disgust. He doesn’t take it too well, and runs off to get himself eaten in the bathroom. Hurrah! Unfortunately, I’m not sure how his mother will react, despite their erotic differences, and, yeah, upon discovering her mutilated son, she goes full Betsy Palmer and bashes the liable zombie’s brains out over the bathtub. Hurroo.    

Enough of that – the devious corpses have procured themselves a battering ram (!?), which makes short work of the front doors. What survivors remain flee to the hills and take shelter in a deserted village (I don’t know where this is meant to be). Naturally, they’re far from safe, and a final twist of Shyamalanic proportions lurks just ahead, topped off with Freudian awkwardness from beyond the grave! Yes, Michael isn’t quite out of the picture; and what he ends up doing would only ever be out-icked by Castle Freak (someone just crossed their legs).

Is The Zombie Dead, or Burial Ground (hell, whatever name you may call it by) an utterly reprehensible slice of exploitation filmmaking? Well, why do you think I picked it? Between the terrible acting and dubbing, the wildly varying quality of zombie makeup, the copious chunks of gore, the shameless amount of naked flesh on show, and that unmistakable aroma of European low budget sleaze, it makes for one hell of a cinematic case study. For all of the above, I would recommend you relinquish those higher brain functions and just... go for it.

Underage dwarf incest notwithstanding.

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