Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Night of the Walking Dead – review

Director: León Klimovsky

Release date: 1977

Contains spoilers

Klimovsky is one of the staples of the euro-horror genre and directed several films that we have already looked at here, these being Werewolf’s Shadow, The Dracula Saga and The Vampire’s Night Orgy.

As El Extraño Amor de los Vampiros, as it was domestically known, began I really didn’t know what to expect. A kind of psychedelic negative of vampire and victim was serenaded by a caustic electric guitar and then… we were in a 18th or 19th century period piece that seemed typical euro-horror fare. Indeed I was prepared to be a little disappointed. The obviously ex-vhs print was too washed out and blurred to allow an exploration of the expected cinematography, the film's dub was that extreme type of dubbing where every character seems to be incredibly patronising in their speech and the setting was too familiar to offer any originality. How wrong I was – not on the first two points – but the lore suddenly twisted into something magnificent.

gratuitous screenshot of a wench
As I say, we are in a period setting village and the locals seem to be plotting something. The village doctor, Patrick, realises what it is and goes to stop the procession of men who are going to the big house, where one of the daughters has recently died. Patrick states that Marian was anaemic and died of natural causes and though his wife suggests caution as they are newcomers to the area, he wants to put a stop to the barbaric practice. Said practice is, of course, to put a stake through the girl’s heart, which the villagers do. She is then buried.

Lore, it seems, is not the villager's strong suit. That evening two women come to the grave and open it. They lift the coffin lid and remove the stake. Marian’s eyes snap open and the two vampire women help the newly raised vampire from her grave. She walks towards the cemetery gates where a cloaked male vampire waits for her. The villagers are of course not too happy about finding the open grave the next day.

Emma Cohen as Catherine
Marian had a sister, Catherine (Emma Cohen, Count Dracula, Horror Rises from the Tomb) and common wisdom supposed she was destined to be a victim too. She is depicted as a sickly woman, with little appetite and prone to fainting. She sneaks around the house getting an eyeful of the maid having some marital rumpy pumpy with the footman.

Count Rudolph bitten
It is through a tinker named Mihai that we get the local legends of the area. The castle on the hill, now a ruin, was home to a Count Rudolph (Carlos Ballesteros). One night he gave hospitality to a traveller and his entourage. Rudolph fell for the traveller's daughter and took her to his bed. Unfortunately they were a travelling band of vampires and as she nibbled on his neck the others slaughtered the household. Over the intervening centuries the villagers have often searched the castle for the vampire Count to no avail.

Marian returns
Catherine is in love with a lad called John and when she hears he has returned to the village she gets a bout of perkiness. We see her and John riding to a bridge in a scene that was a tad confusing until you realised it was a flashback. Following the flashback we realise that she is wandering aimlessly, waiting for him to come to her, when she stumbles upon him and a maid in a hayloft – Catherine scares him, her eyes harbour death, John tells the maid. This puts her into a downward spiral, made worse when her father takes her mother to the city and she is left on her own. She also sees her sister at her window but Marian is driven off by a cross that their mother scratched into the glass.

Rudolph stalking
Everything changes when a Count Rudolph comes asking for hospitality, which she gives. Of course it is the vampire and, once the household retires for the evening, he does some of that creepy vampire stalker bedroom gazing but is held off her by the cross she wears. In the morning he is gone but she goes to the ruins and sees an original portrait of the Count, the date beneath it confirming his date of birth (no date of death is given). When he sends a carriage for her the next night she accepts the invitation – and this is where the lore got really good.

the night of the walking dead
We see graves open up in the graveyard; half the occupants are vampires it seems. That night it is a party for the vampires as most are confined to their graves and emerge once every ten years (this doesn’t fit with the fact that they also get up and about the next night, but that might be because the villagers attack them). The castle interior now looks sumptuous and it seems the Count can restore it by whim. The vampires rampage through the village (though two are killed by Mihai through the medium of a flaming torch). John is brought and strung up as a snack – his fate in Catherine’s hands…

nail in the head
The other lore we get is the fact that a stake through the heart won’t work permanently. Clearly we saw that and, as Catherine's father is the one who communicates the effective method, we can only guess that he didn’t relay that to the villagers as it was his daughter they were staking. Rather an iron nail should be hammered through the skull – this not only makes for a nicely unusual scene but forms (unintentionally) a bridge between East and West as the Indonesian Kuntilanak is sometimes said to lose its powers through just such an intervention.

So, some great lore – I loved the vampire party and the nail through the head. The ending is deliciously dour. However the print I saw left a lot to be desired and the dubbing is awful. This is screaming for a digitally restored release, in its original language with subtitles. As it stands the lore carries this to 6 out of 10 – a better print that reveals the cinematography and good original acting might well push the score higher.

The imdb page is here.


Anthony Hogg said...

G'day Andrew,

Did a little write-up on the nail-in-the-head bit.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Anthony, good article.

I was aware of the European lore - especially via Calmet. I also take the point that the filmmakers were likely looking to European lore rather than anything further flung.

The fault is mine for not explaining what I meant. I was more alluding to an accidental connectivity, perhaps alluding to a subconscious undercurrent.

Why was a stake or a nail used? To pin the undead to the floor primarily (or in Indonesia to strip them of their powers, essentially the same thing).

This would allow for a generally common theme (and possibly sources back to post-mortem sitting of corpses, which I understand is more common than we'd think)

I like such connections and perhaps should have mentioned the, clearly, more obvious European connection.

Re your quote concerning the location of the nail (ie back of the neck), this is a more common entry point (from my researches), but at least one Indonesian films switches things to the crown of the skull. The forehead makes for a more visually immediate scene, when the corpse is coffin bound ;)