On Friday the 13th, in October of 1307, King Philip IV ordered the simultaneous mass arrest of dozens of Knights Templar. The order had been formed in the 1100s to defend pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Later, they were instrumental in the Crusades as well as becoming a massive financial power in Europe. Philip had become deeply in debt to the Knights and seized upon a bit of controversy from two years earlier to form a basis for a multitude of charges against the Knights, including: spitting on the cross, indecent kissing, homosexuality, idolatry, denying Christ, fraud, and secrecy. Many confessed to these charges, while being tortured. Dozens of knights were burned at the stake, while others were absorbed into the rival order of the Hospitallers or allowed to simply retire. The Church later forgave the knights, acknowledging the corruption that had led to their demise, and the Church recognized them as innocent.
Even though they were trumped up charges, the story of evil knights operating under the guise of Christian soldiers makes for a pretty good story–a story that would not only boost the Spanish horror scene, but also the career of 53-year-old director Amando de Ossorio.
De Ossorio developed the concept of his 1971 film, La Noche Del Terror Ciego (Night of Blind Terror) aka Tombs of the Blind Dead, inspired by the legend of the Templar, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and Gustavo Adolfo Becquer’s El Monte de Las Animas, which has many of the elements made famous by those films (the undead knights rising from the tombs, the sacred Night of the Deceased, ancient ruins, remote locations, and ghostly atmosphere). Despite the similarity in dress, de Ossorio’s knights weren’t Templar Knights, but only referred to as ‘knights from the east,’ although they were surely some off shoot and certainly met a similar fate. Also, they were not zombies, more like vampiric mummies. Their tale may have been partially inspired by Night of the Living Dead, but the knights of the blind dead films were not mindless. Also, unlike the Templar, who were burned at the stake, de Ossorio’s knights were hung and their eyes were plucked out by birds-hence the ‘blind’ dead.
The eyeless, bearded mummy knights are some of the most striking figures in horror cinema and the four official films of the blind dead series created an amazing dichotomy between their gothic horror roots and the modern 1970s. I compare these films to doom metal; slow paced, highly atmospheric, dark, brooding, and the highlights make up for the parts that drag.
My first introduction to The blind dead was through Commander USA’s Groovy Movies on the USA network when I was in middle school. The Commander had played The Ghost Galleon, the third in the series, one Saturday and though I’d missed the beginning, the sight of the hooded knights kept me riveted to my spot on the floor. Though the exterior of the galleon was clearly a toy in a bath tub, the rest of the film was creepy, atmospheric, and had a downright scary and doom-laden ending (which I later ripped off for a Romero inspired zombie story in high school). I hadn’t actually heard of the blind dead until I came across the pale yellow clam shell box of the old VHS tape at one of our local mom and pop rental shops. The photo on the cover was a muddy close up of the knights with the American title Tombs of the Blind Dead. The plot sounded pretty good, although I was worried it might lack the gore of my favorite zombie films, Dawn of the Dead and Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell. I was right–not only that, the VHS was so muddy, with poor sound, I had no idea what was even happening. I don’t think I even finished watching it! Of course, I made no connection between it and The Ghost Galleon.
You don’t grow up obsessed with horror and avoid reading about or hearing mention of the blind dead. Over the years the title kept cropping up almost as often as the knight’s images. I did some research to see what I was missing, but until they began streaming on Amazon and Shudder, seeing all four films wasn’t easy, as they were pricey individually and even more so as a beautiful coffin shaped box set from Blue Underground. This past winter, I decided it was time to sit down with the blind dead and properly clear that blind spot in my horror viewing.
La Noche Del Terror Ciego/Tombs of the Blind Dead 1971
Written and directed by Amando de Ossorio
Starring Lone Fleming, Cesar Burner, Helen Harp, and Joseph Thelman
Roger and Virginia are on vacation in Spain, where they meet up with Virginia’s old roommate (with whom she shared a brief romantic affair) Betty. Betty joins the pair on a train ride through the country, but when Virginia sees Roger taking a liking to Betty, she jumps off the train and hikes up to the old ruins of Berzano, planning to camp their for the night before heading back. Unfortunately, Virginia didn’t know those ruins were the legendary burial place of the blind dead, who rose from their graves that night, ate her flesh and drank her blood. Roger and Betty team up to investigate what happened to Virginia after her ravaged body is found near the train tracks where she jumped off.
The film combines the aesthetics of a gothic Hammer horror film with an Italian giallo, though it wasn’t as visceral or sexy as either. Still Tombs of the Blind Dead kicked off a very unique series that was more about atmosphere and creeping dread than body count or gore. The film’s flaws lay primarily in the lack of a proper budget. The sets are under-lit, and the special effects are sometimes obviously cheap, but Ossorio works magic when it comes to almost any scene involving the knights rising from their graves, attacking en masse or pursuing victims on horseback. They’re what make these movies so special and set them apart from Romero’s films or any of the knock-offs of his work.
El Ataque De Los Muertos Sin Ojos/Return of the Evil Dead/Return of the Blind Dead 1973
Written and directed by de Ossorio
Starring Tony Kendall, Fernando Sancho, Esperanza Roy, Lone Fleming
Creating a bit of a continuity problem with the first film, Return of the Evil Dead opens with an angry mob of peasants capturing the knights, rounding them up to burn them at the stake for their evil deeds. The villagers burn the knights’ eyes out with torches, as the Knights swear revenge on the village. The film then jumps to the 500th anniversary of the knights’ defeat being celebrated by the village. The town idiot, Murdo, murders a woman in the graveyard where the knights are buried, and as soon as night falls, they rise and proceed to massacre the village.
While a low budget is still an overall hindrance, Return of the Evil Dead is a step up in terms of story, pace, and violence. It may be the strongest entry in the series and it also sets a standard for unexplained shifts in location and tweaks to the origins of the knights. This makes the series, taken as a whole, feel more like a folk tale or urban legend than a cohesive narrative.
El Buque Maldito/The Ghost Galleon/The Blind Dead 3 1973
Written and directed by de Ossorio
Starring Maria Perschy, Jack Taylor, Barbara Rey
Two swimsuit models out on a small boat, attempting some sort of publicity stunt, encounter a ghostly ship that appears in a mist. The girls board the ship, become trapped and are eventually killed by the knights who rise from coffins from below decks. The model’s dirty boss goes searching for the girls himself, with four others to avoid negative publicity. They find the ship, board it and become trapped themselves. One member of the group is a meteorologist who has some knowledge of the legendary ship–this comes in handy, somewhat, as the group fights for survival on the galleon.
The Ghost Galleon is certainly not the best film in the series, but it is my favorite. De Ossorio was very disappointed in the overall film because of the aforementioned toy boat that looked so cheap. Everything else works though. The knights are still just as creepy, the Hammer-like gothic boat setting is very effective and adds freshness to the series, and again we get new details about the power and evil of the knights. Plus, it has the best line of the series…
Professor Gruber: “Satan…is that you??”
The film also plays with notions of time and space. The galleon seems to occupy a pocket dimension, only emerging when ships are near. The rescue party is able see out when a cruise ship goes by, but they are invisible. So while Ossorio explicitly links the knights to Satanic ritual, he also links them to a cosmic horror that approaches Lovecraftian territory. Again, I adore the end of this movie, and the images have haunted me since sixth grade. After dumping all the coffins overboard, three of the survivors attempt to swim for shore, but only two of them make it. As they lie on the beach, catching their breath, the knights emerge from the ocean and slowly surround the couple. It is metal as fuck. However, it does have a glaring contradiction to the close of Return of the Evil Dead, where the knights collapse with the sunrise. In The Ghost Galleon they rise from the sea in broad daylight.
La Noche de Las Gaviotas/Night of the Seagulls/Don’t Go Out At Night/Night of the Death Cult 1975
Written and directed by de Ossorio
Starring Victor Petit, Maria Kosti, Sandra Mozarowsky
A young doctor and his wife arrive at a remote coastal village to take over for the old retiring doctor. No one seems aware of their impending arrival and are generally rude or even hostile to the couple. Even the old doctor warns them to go back, and especially avoid going out at night. After plenty of womanly hysteria and husbandly disregard for his wife’s feelings, the couple finally learn the village’s dark secret–how they bring young girls out to the beach as sacrificial victims for the knights, who ride down and steal them away, returning back to their temple, where the girls are laid before a statue (of Dagon, maybe?). They get their hearts cut out, and then have their bodies feasted on by the knights. We also get a flashback to the knights performing this ritual while they were still alive, at the beginning of the film. After the couple tries to protect one of the girls marked for sacrifice, they become targets themselves, but eventually discover the sacrificial room, where they destroy the statue. This results in the best finale of the series, as the knights begin to fall apart, blood gushing from their empty eye-sockets!
Night of the Seagulls may be the most consistently strong entry in the series. It’s the most compact of the four, with the fewest moving pieces, so the dread is able to build more satisfactorily than in the previous three. The version that’s streaming, I believe, is from the Blue Underground DVD, but it is very dark, even muddy during the nighttime exteriors. This whole series could really use a 4k restoration. That is not to say it’s unwatchable, please don’t misunderstand. De Ossorio ends his run on a high note and really leaves nothing to say, but his fellow countryman Jesus Franco does pay homage to him by including the blind dead in his film Mansion of the Living Dead (1982) and John Gilling, of Hammer, made an unofficial fifth blind dead film called The Devil’s Cross (1975), which was written by Paul Naschy, who was also set to star, but ultimately fired during production.
La Noche Del Terror Ciego is often dumped into the zombie sub-genre, but you’d have to look to Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) or The Beyond (1981) to find anything else within the genre that doesn’t try to just repeat what Romero did previously. One of the things that help make the blind dead films special and unique is the fact that de Ossorio held creative control. You can see that same love in the first four Phantasm films from Don Coscarelli (not a knock against part 5, which I love, but it certainly sticks out from the previous four). De Ossorio retired from filmmaking in 1984 after his film The Sea Serpent was a commercial flop. The director felt he had always been screwed on budgets and thus never able to fully realize his vision on any films. He seemed to know his blind dead series was loved though, as he started doing oil paintings of the knights to sell to fans in the 90s. He had conceived his own fifth chapter of the blind dead, but died in 2001 at the age of 82 without ever seeing those plans realized.