The most notoriously trashy and outrageous film of the early 1980s Italian zombie cycle is more interesting than you might think.
Andrea Bianchi’s 1980 film The Nights of Terror, also known as Burial Ground (the title that it’s released under on blu-ray), Zombie Horror and Zombi 3, has long been derided as the very bottom of the barrel when it comes to Italian zombie films. Watching this a couple of weeks after another Italian zombie title, Dr Butcher M.D., I feel that I have to defend it. It’s certainly sloppily made, low rent nonsense – but as sloppily made, low rent nonsense goes, it’s perhaps more interesting, atmospheric and fast-paced than some of its contemporaries, and it has an element of not giving a damn that is oddly appealing.
The story – what there is of it – involves three couples arriving at a villa where, in the opening scene, we’ve seen the heavily bearded Professor Ayer either discovering or unleashing the living dead through an ancient Etruscan curse. On arrival, everyone goes to their rooms for a bit of hanky panky, apart from Evelyn’s son Michael, played by Peter Bark, who is – well, what is he? A weird-looking child? A weird-looking dwarf? As it turns out, the latter, given his oddly incestuous desires for his mother (Maria Angela Giordano, oddly prone to appearing in the most sexually degrading scenes in Italian horror) in one scene and his final piece-de-resistance, neither of which could be played by an actual child. Unfortunately, the casting of a creepy-looking, middle-aged, four-foot-high man as a young kid is probably the most unsettlingly weird aspect of this movie, and in a large way responsible for the ridicule heaped on it over the years.
Anyway – gratuitous scenes of nudity over, our romantic couples find themselves rudely interrupted by flesh-hungry zombies, most of whom move at the pace you might expect from hundred-of-years old corpses, meaning the film gets increasingly desperate to find excuses for them catching anyone (somebody getting their foot caught in an animal trap is about the only plausible one, frankly). Things eventually end up in a monastery, where – rather unfortunately – all the monks are zombies, leading up to a moment of such ludicrous offensiveness that it rather overwhelms everything that has come before.
Directed by Andrea Bianchi with the sort of disinterested efficiency that you’d expect from a jobbing hack (the final screen text referring to the “profecy of the Black Spider” that refers to “the nigths of terror” perhaps indicates the levels of attention being shown all round), everything about The Nights Of Terror suggests that it should be irredeemable rubbish. And that’s very much been the consensus, even amongst fans of Italian schlock. But I’d like to make the case for the defence, if I may. Because you can take this as thoroughly enjoyable trash or you can look for the more interesting aspects of the movie, but either way, it’s actually much more worthwhile than it ought to be.
The film seems much more influenced by the Lovecraftian nightmares of Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead and The Beyond (both made in the same year as this film) than the George Romero global holocausts; brought back in response to some ancient curse, the zombies here can even use weapons, hacking away at the villa door with axes and proving a dab hand at throwing nails – and even using power tools. They can also climb buildings, and these touches – minor as they are – at least give the film a slightly more original feel than many of the Romero-influenced zombie gut crunchers. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that the Italian zombie genre, often derided as nothing more than a cash-in on Dawn of the Dead, actually existed more in its own supernatural and gothic-inspired world – even if it does use the Romero tropes of infection, cannibalism and exploding heads.
There are the odd moments in this film – a visual here and there, like the maid’s severed head falling in slow motion into the hands of the waiting zombies below – that are genuinely impressive, hinting at what the film could have been with more ambition. And then there is the soundtrack, which jumps between very average orchestral stuff and oddly impressive, moody electronic wailing that is less Fabio Frizzi synth beat than experimental noodling, and works well at giving the zombie scenes a sense of the bizarre.
The much-derided zombie make-up isn’t actually that bad, at least for the walking corpses who get close-ups. They are impressively grotesque, rotting, maggoty creatures that are genuinely nightmarish. Admittedly, most of the background zombies have a ‘that’ll do’ aspect to their make-up but I wonder if much of the criticism of make-up artist Gino De Rossi’s work came from gorehounds, upset that the film doesn’t quite deliver the same level of grue as his work with Lucio Fulci did (for a 1980 Italian zombie film, this is oddly – and relatively – reserved when it comes to gore for the most part).
And the film doesn’t dither. Unlike its zombies, it moves at quite a pace, and even manages to build a bit of tension here and there. That’s not something I can say of some of the more beloved Italian films of the era.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that this is some forgotten masterpiece. It’s derivative (at least two scenes are direct copies of better sequences from Zombie Flesh Eaters), the characters are entirely ridiculous and prone to spouting utterly awful dialogue (“you look like a whore – but I like that in a girl”) and everyone has to do very stupid things – even by zombie movie standards – to allow these slow-moving – sometimes not moving at all – creatures to catch them. One character even points out how easy it would be to avoid the zombies, and the film subsequently requires everyone to stand around shouting until they are eaten, rather than simply walk away at a brisk pace. And nothing can ever excuse Peter Bark, even if he is involved in what might be the most outrageous moment in the history of Italian horror cinema. But if you have avoided this movie because of its genre critic rep, I’d suggest giving it a go. It is, at the very least, good fun.
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