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An Englishman’s Guide to Italian Gothic: The Castle of the Living Dead (1964)

“I wish the two of you to play the leading parts in my eternal theatre […] You will be forever on the stage” – Christopher Lee as Count Drago in Il castello dei morti vivi (1964) 

Starring Christopher Lee, Il castello dei morti vivi (TheCastle of the Living Dead) stands out like an undead thumb among the “Golden Age” Italian Gothics discussed so far, for a number of reasons. Not only was it instigated, written, produced, and directed by a pair of visiting Americans, but it’s also famed for the involvement of tragic British wunderkind director Michael Reeves as second assistant director, and the feature film debut of Donald Sutherland, no less, in two separate roles.

These points of interest aside, confusion over the exact identity of the director, the posthumous cult of the enigmatic Reeves, allied with the fact the film was unavailable to view for some time, have ensured that rarely in the annals of film fandom has quite so much absolute guff been said and written about any entry of its type. I’ll take care to avoid similar transgressions here; there’s enough confusion around this one already without me throwing any more bullshit into the mix. 

Castle of the Living Dead was co-written and directed by Warren Kiefer, a 34-year-old from New Jersey. The bamboozlement begins because by now we’re used to Italian directors masked by American-sounding names (even on the Italian prints), rather than the other way around; hence the name “Lorenzo Sabatini” has been diligently seized from the end credits as the identity of the “true” director. This was in fact simply a pseudonym coined by Kiefer, in homage to a 16th century Italian painter he admired. “Angelo Rizzoli’s Cineriz came up with the main financing, and qualified the film as an official Italo-French co-production,” Kiefer later told Roberto Curti. “This complicated my credit because to receive state subsidies, an Italian director was required.”

Further head-scratching ensues with the crediting of “Herbert Wise” on Italian prints and posters, leading others in turn to point to first assistant director Luciano Ricci as Castle‘s director. Wise was a pseudonym Ricci had already registered and employed for the previous year’s Solo contro Roma (Alone Against Rome aka Vengeance of the Gladiators (1962), co-directed with (or completed for) Riccardo Freda, so it was simply expedient to pull it off the shelf. As if all this wasn’t enough, Roberto Curti also notes a contemporaneous Italian reviewer that blithely assumes Castle of the Living Dead to be directed by Freda. No wonder folks were confused, especially pre-internet.  

Kiefer had apparently walked away from a job and a family in the US to find movie business success in the then-thriving “Hollywood on the Tiber”. It was while working at Cinecittà that he came into the orbit of New Yorker Paul Maslansky, then working as production manager on Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships (1963). Fast friends, two young Americans in Rome, it wasn’t long until they were cooking up a film project together. If Maslansky’s name sounds familiar, it’s because his future production credits would include Race with the Devil (1975), Damnation Alley (1977), Return to Oz (1985), and the entire Police Academy series (1984-94), of which the final, Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (1994), featured Christopher Lee. 

Clearly a shrewd producer even in those early days, Maslansky knew the Gothic boom still had a year or so of box-office life in it yet. According to Michael Reeves biographer Benjamin Halligan, Maslansky had: 

“cooked up the idea of slumming through a very quick black and white horror film, finding and utilising ready-made sets through a thrifty reliance on atmospheric location shooting, and redrafting the script to incorporate whatever local colour was going cheap.”

Or as Curti puts it, “it was just another little B-movie, a hit and run job that would provide both director and producer with quick cash.”

The filming was completed in 24 days (not in itself unusual for an Italo-Gothic) with said “atmospheric location” and “local colour” abundantly found in the forms of the imposing 15th century Castello Orsini-Odescalchi, in Bomarzo, Lazio, and, situated in the woodland valley beneath it, the even more fascinating Parco dei Mostri (“Park of Monsters”, sometimes called “Mostri Park”). More on that later. Christopher Lee was flown in for ten days, one of several excursions to Italy made by the actor around that time. He’d starred in Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body, Antonio Margheriti’s The Virgin of Nuremberg (aka Horror Castle, Castle of Terror), and the more obscure Katarsis (from one-time director “Vegezzi”) in 1963, and 1964 would also see him top-bill Camillo Mastrocinque’s Carmilla adaptation Terror in the Crypt (aka Crypt of Horror). 

As Castle of the Living Dead opens, we find ourselves in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, where we are informed via voiceover that banditry and violence rule the roadways. The instances we see, however, wherein an amorous couple are savagely attacked and a man murdered on his horse, are the work of but one man: Sandro, as played by the strikingly spindly and sinister Mirko Valentin. Valentin was also “The Punisher / Living Skull” of The Virgin of Nuremberg, in heavy make-up, but was more often seen as an evil henchman in spaghetti westerns and pepla. The rangy actor actually provides much of the film’s main threat, making for a gleefully overzealous henchmen here.

We then join psycho Sandro at what appears to be a public execution (“public hangings were common,” declares the voiceover), where the Harlequin-clad Dart (near-ubiquitous Italian character actor Luciano Pigozzi) is being fitted up with a noose. When our portly Harlequin manages to fool the executioner into accidentally hanging himself, it’s made apparent that this is in fact a mummer’s farce performed by a troupe of commedia dell’arte themed travelling players. Said troupe is led by one Bruno (Russian-born actor Jacques Stany of Orgasmo [1969]), and also includes a dwarf named Nick (Antonio De Martino) in its number. 

As with the director, the identity of the latter actor has been another site of confusion over the years; Martino is Italian, but thanks to his name being Anglicised into “Anthony Martin” for the English credits, he tends to be erroneously conflated with the similarly diminutive British actor Anthony “Skip” Martin of Vampire Circus (1972) and Horror Hospital (1973), despite the two’s interesting faces bearing few similarities. In this scene we also get our first glimpse of Donald Sutherland, in the role of Sgt. Paul, an obnoxious young gendarme

When the show is over, Sandro shiftily passes Dart a letter, which the assembled players are soon reading at a local tavern. The missive is from one Count Drago (who we soon find to be Christopher Lee – of course), offering them a whopping three gold pieces to come perform their show at his castle. However, this leads to trouble in the ranks as a fight over money breaks out between Bruno and Dart, coming to serious blows when Dart starts manhandling Laura (Gaia Germani, also of Lucio Fulci’s The Maniacs [1964]). When Dart gains the upper hand, passing discharged soldier Eric (French star Philippe Leroy, of The Frightened Woman [1969] and Milano Calibro 9 [1972]) steps into the fray on the side of the injured Bruno, sending the brutish Dart on his way, cursing and threatening his revenge. 

Getting on rather well with Laura, Eric throws in his lot with the troupe as they make their merry way to Castle Drago; minus Dart, of course. As they approach they notice a lack of birdsong or any other sign of wildlife, and, in an oddly memorable moment, are puzzled to find a stuffed raven perched on the branch of a skeletal tree. Adding to the fairy tale ambience of the scene is the emergence of an old witch in the classic mould (a made-up Sutherland, clearly enjoying himself in the other of his two roles), who amongst other blarney warns them to “Beware the Castle of the Living Dead.” Ignoring this almost Python-esque old crone, they’re soon at the castle and we’re introduced to Lee’s Count Drago, who is in his own words the “lord of the castle and these lands, and also something of a scientist.” The castle interior is impressive: all fifteen-foot-high ceilings, fine furniture, the compulsory suits of armour, and enough taxidermy to make Norman Bates insane with envy. Drago even has an impressive lacquered wooden throne, complete with carved-in upside-down pentagram, that looks as though it was possibly a “found object” rather than a prop made especially for the film. 

That night, the guys perform their show for Drago, with Eric this time taking on the Harlequin role for the old hangman routine. Bruno plays the masked executioner again, but, injured and groggy after his fight with Dart, this time ends up hanging himself for real. End of show. Meanwhile the vengeful Dart is prowling the grounds, but doesn’t get very far before being spotted by Sandro and hacked down with a scythe. You may well be wondering where “the Living Dead” come into all this by now, but don’t worry, you’re about to find out. True to cliché, the lonely Count of course is immediately besotted with the female lead – Laura –  but of course has a nefarious “fate worse than death” in store. 

Laura sees the castle cat instantly petrified on the spot (courtesy of a freeze-frame) after its drinking from her spilled glass of brandy, and we realise what this possible fate is. After years of experimentation, Drago has perfected a formula that suspends living things indefinitely, and preserves them perfectly. It began as an attempt to save his dying wife – who still lies frozen on her cobweb-strewn sickbed – but it seems he has since decided to freeze just about anyone, man or beast,  he can lay his hands on. Perhaps not the kind of “Living Dead” most viewers might be hoping for, but there it is. The horrifying reality of this truly hits Laura when she stumbles upon the body of Dart; there’s definitely something very unsettling about looking down with Laura to see he is supported by a display stand. 

While Laura avoids Drago’s advances, little Nick is being hunted down by Sandro in the castle’s grounds – as represented by Bomarzo’s spectacular Park of Monsters. Part of the wider Scara Bosco (“Sacred Grove”), the park is famed for its huge sculptures of mythical creatures, commissioned in the 16th century by Bomarzo’s duke, Pier Francesco Orsini. The imposing figures are in the Mannerist / Late Renaissance style (as was the work of Warren Kiefer’s favoured artist, Lorenzo Sabatini), and are said to have been commissioned by Orsini in the throes of grief for the death of his wife. Although the scenes in the park were only added to the screenplay at a later stage, it’s tempting to see a parallel between Orsini and our widower Count, with his growing collection of living statues. Most famous of the garden’s sculptures is the “Orcus Mouth” (also known as the “Hellmouth”), from which Nick at one point emerges and provides the film with easily its most memorable shot. The use of the sculptures adds instant production value and visual interest to what could have been a straightforward and forgettable cat-and-mouse routine. Kiefer and Maslansky probably couldn’t believe their luck when they saw the place.

The film’s other fantastique show-stopper arrives near the climax, where Drago proudly shows the main body of his “collection” to an incredulous Laura and Eric. A strange tableau sees the assorted petrified people arranged as an audience around a stage, upon which he intends the whole troupe to form the centrepiece. “I wish the two of you to play the leading parts in my eternal theatre,” he declares, and that “You will be forever on the stage.” However, this wonderfully uncanny scene soon gives way to a semi-comic sword-fight when Sgt Paul and his men arrive. Will Drago get away with it all and get Eric and Laura arrested? Or will someone intervene? 

Like Sutherland, Sir Chris does appear to be enjoying himself in his role. In his own inimitable way, of course. Drago is a slightly more playful character than his Dracula, sometimes giddy and more than a touch camp; but still snapping into stern, aloof, and shouty Christopher mode at the drop of a hat. Lee’s approach sums the character up perfectly for us – over-privileged, over-indulged, “nobility”, with no living relatives. Idling away his time and inherited fortune in kidnapping people’s husbands, wives, sisters, and children to create obscene living doll dioramas. With the peasant Sandro doing all the dirty work, naturally. In short, Drago is a spoiled child. 

As for Sutherland, he certainly stands out in both of his roles, and at one point even has a scene with himself. Roberto Curti tells us how, on a visit to England, Kiefer and Maslansky saw the Canadian actor in “a Lindsey Anderson Royal Court production of Spoon River Anthology”, and were bowled over by “an incredibly talented young man, tall, lanky, and with a prominent Adam’s apple, who played five or six roles in the play. They paid him a visit backstage and asked him if he wanted to make a horror movie in Italy for 50 backs a week.” Beyond the film, Kiefer and Sutherland would remain close friends until the former’s death in 1995; Donald would of course name his son, born just two years after Castle in 1966, after the man who had given him his first big-screen break. Incidentally, as I keep saying Donald is in two roles here, you might wonder why nearly everywhere else says three. Legend has it that he is also “The Old Man” somewhere in the film. Maybe he is. Show me this old man, I say.

And what of twenty-year-old Michael Reeves, the main reason some viewers seek out Castle of the Living Dead in the first place? The gifted young director that left us two outstanding pictures in the forms of The Sorcerers (1967) and Witchfinder General (1968) surely made some mark on the film, but the extent of this has been the subject of some real flights of fancy over the years. Maslansky had met Reeves also when working on The Long Ships, although in his case on location in the former Yugoslavia. Impressed by the younger man’s enthusiasm (Halligan has said that, “Christopher Lee remembers more about Reeves and his enthusiasm than [Castle] itself”), he not only brought Reeves aboard for Castle, but also subsequently produced his scrappy-but-fun directorial debut, Il lago di Satana (The She Beast aka Revenge of the Blood Beast, 1966), starring Barbara Steele. In this respect, Castle also represents Reeves’ “big break.”  

Over the years some of the most respected names in genre writing have issued forth all manner of wild theories regarding Reeves’ input into the film. In some cases thanks to receiving well-meaning misinformation or contradictory accounts from the cast and crew themselves – in others simply declaring outright that certain scenes or shots are “obviously” the handiwork of Michael Reeves. Whether it be the sequence in the Parco dei Mostri, the voiceover at the beginning, the fight in the tavern, the stuffed raven, or the part where Sandro murders Dart – basically, any scene, shot, or script addition that evidences any kind of visual flair, quirky sensibility, or, in short, talent. Some have gone as far as to say that Kiefer “got sick” and Reeves actually directed most (if not all) of the film. However, “Reeves acted mostly as a runner, as he had done on The Long Ships, and would again on Genghis Khan (1965),” as Reeves biographer Halligan tells us:

“[S]ome moments were indeed directed by Reeves; pick-ups, inserts, cutaways and (after principle photography) missing shots, long shots of the carriage in the woods, and – Maslansky recalls – ‘mood stuff on the battlements of the castle.’ Maslansky confirms that while Reeves was ‘incredibly useful as a second assistant director’, the film was entirely Kiefer’s.” 

When we’re left with only three films by a young director of that kind of promise, it’s only natural to want to seek out something else beyond that small handful. Discovering Reeves’ involvement in Castle of the Living Dead brings an undeniable temptation to look out for signs of his auteurship – folks will see them everywhere if they want to enough. And likely be wrong in most cases. However, what we can say without much fear of contradiction is that Reeves’ much-documented enthusiasm and energy can only have influenced the film for the better. 

Warren Kiefer’s name doesn’t carry much currency in horror or film circles, so credit for the film’s direction (or at least direction of any of the good bits) tends to be stripped from him in favour of the more exciting Reeves. Or “Lorenzo Sabatini”, Kiefer’s own Italian pseudonym. That’s life for you sometimes. But the thing is, far from being some fly-by-night “nobody”, Kiefer directed three more Italian films, albeit largely forgotten; Next of Kin (1968), Juliet De Sade (aka Heterosexual, 1969), and Scacco alla mafia (Defeat of the Mafia, 1970). Beyond the films he directed himself, he had two further story treatments committed to film, of which one became Lee Van Cleef western Al di là della legge (Beyond the Law, 1968). He was also the author of eight highly successful thriller novels, with one of them, 1972’s The Lingala Code, winning the Mystery Writers of America’s “Edgar” award for best novel of that year. No slouch, and an incredibly intelligent man.  

With Castle of the Living Dead, Kiefer and Maslansky certainly achieved what they set out to do. A solid low budget horror film, it made money both domestically and internationally, and enabled the pair to mount their next projects. As a first film for both, it’s no small achievement that the film is at least a “second tier” Italian Gothic, superior to many others of its penny-pinching ilk. What we see on screen is largely the product of their own talent and natural smarts. 

However, while Kiefer and Maslansky were still fairly green, they had the advantage of a crew of serious Italian film industry pros, ensuring that the production has a solid backbone and a professional sheen. Cinematography veteran Aldo Tonti’s credits included Visconti’s Obsession (1944) and Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). Working under Tonti is camera operator Luigi Kuveiller, who would later serve as director of photography on Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Deep Red (1975), and The New York Ripper (1982). The film is sharply edited by Mario Serandrei, who as well as performing those honours for Bava on the pivotal Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963), and Blood and Black Lace (1964), also worked with Visconti on Rocco and His Brothers (1960), and Gillo Pontecorvo on The Battle of Algiers (1966). Veteran film music composer Angelo Lavagnino’s CV of over 200 credits includes Orson Welles’ Othello (1952), Sergio Leone’s The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), and Lucio Fulci’s Beatrice Cenci (aka Conspiracy of Torture, 1969). His orchestra is being conducted by Carlo Savina, whose many and varied works include Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1973) and Fellini’s Amarcord (1973). Just let all that sink in. 

As you can see by the amount of times they’re quoted here, we largely have Roberto Curti and Benjamin Halligan to thank for clearing up much of the confusion around this particular film – both approaching this eminently first world problem from different directions. For the record, the current writer’s conscience forces him to admit of a Castle of the Living Dead felony of his own many years ago; the old “Luciano Ricci as director” line, in this case. Thankfully there’s no byline on that one. Hopefully the info minefield has been successfully circumnavigated in the above, but with a web as tangled as this, no doubt there’ll be something. 

About Rob Talbot

Returning from early days of Diabolique, Rob Talbot is a compulsive writer and cult cinema obsessive. He also writes for UK horror magazine Scream, including the popular 'Eurohorror of the Week' column for their website, and has also been published extensively in Starburst and Bedabbled!: British Horror & Cult Cinema, amongst others. Other obsessions include Italian soundtracks, Krautrock, and hard SF novels.

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