Sunday, January 20, 2013

Vengeance of the Zombies (1973)

I think It’s been too long since I last covered a Paul Naschy movie, and to make up for this, I’ve chosen to cover one of the best and easiest to recommend, aside from Horror Rises from the Tomb, that you Naschy fans out there have no doubt already seen.

Vengeance of the Zombies aka La Rebelion de las Muertas is a huge slice of awesome from Naschy and director Leon Klimovsky that delivers a good deal of bloody fun to go with its heavy-handed themes of religion, betrayal, and vengeance, partly thanks to some extraordinary gore and plenty of sassy female zombies in see-thru negligees who’ve managed to maintain fabulous looking hair despite being dead and partially decayed. It’s also a Spanish horror babe-fest, complete with some of the best from the era: Aurora de Alba (Mark of the Wolfman), Maria Kosty (A Dragonfly for each Corpse), my personal favorite from the movie Mirta Miller (Count Dracula’s Great Love), and an adorable redhead lead actress that just seems to go by Romy.

This one’s notorious for having an off-kilter score, by Juan Carlos Calderon, but I rather like it. I personally don’t think it’s bad; it just has a tone that some may find mismatching. With the fearsome personality of the picture, one could say that the upbeat, jazzy score seems intrusive and misplaced at times, overthrowing suspense and possibly inciting failed restrained laughter from some of the more uninitiated audience members (as an aside I want to mention that the sounds heard during the morgue scene, as the zombies rise, are some of the most eerie and unnerving I've ever heard and fit in perfectly; listen for it). But this is part of what makes cult film so fascinating and kitsch. I was initially hooked at the beginning when a resurrected zombie lady (Norma Kastel) began running over concrete graves in slow motion. The credits roll over an up-close shot of this creepy living dead woman walking a fixed distance from the camera, as dark, reality transcending jazz music can be heard before the movie transitions into a bright and cheerful day in London with a another hip Jazzy piece and some embarrassingly catchy “dow-dow-dow” vocals that are a bigger earworm than Gangnam Style. It’s my kind of way to start a horror film. Totally off the wall!

Like in Horror Rises from the Tomb, Naschy showcases his remarkable talent for playing good, evil, and beyond, by putting on different faces and starring in three roles: the Devil (one of Nachy’s most celebrated faces) and two brothers, Krishna, a Hindu guru, and Kantaka, a voodoo mystic who keeps his disfigured face hidden behind different Halloween masks for the most part. Due credit should go to makeup artist Miguel Sese particularly for a gruesome moment when Kantaka is first, quite alarmingly, revealed in the bedroom of the lead character, Elvire (Romy), as she is sleeping. It’s a creepy moment that reminds me of why I was sometimes afraid to open my eyes while trying to fall asleep as a kid.
Naschy’s villain, Kantaka, is the masked killer with a method of murder that goes well beyond that of an ordinary maniac and into the “fantastique,” an esoteric murderer with the supernatural ability to resurrect the corpses of those he’s killed via a voodoo ritual. Spilling blood on a wax idol and setting it on fire results in the corpse arising, faithfully obeying the murderous wishes of its master and killing the first person it sees. It appears that Kantaka's main objective is to put together a small group of zombies and orchestrate a grand ritual to gain immortality and have his vengeance on those responsible for his hideous disfigurement. 

The course of events take place between London and an isolated mansion in a place called Llangwell that I believe might be a fictional location. The house setting, which is referred to as “the Devil’s house,” introduces a legend into the movie about a cursed family called the Whateleys (yes, I thought of The Dunwich Horror too), who used to live in the house and are reported to have made a deal with the devil. It’s another setup for what could be a whole other movie altogether but is still nicely melded with the central plot here. Dr. Lawrence Radcliffe (Vic Winner), a sort of scholarly expert in the occult, mentions that voodoo cultists prefer to perform their rituals in haunted places or at the sites of gruesome murders as a way of establishing a better connection with Baron Semedi (a type of voodoo spirit and one of the coolest James Bond characters -- Live and Let Die), and so the choice of making an effort to add a seemingly unrelated evil background legend to the house used as the site for Kantaka’s nefarious purposes doesn't seem as shoehorned.

The scene at Scotland Yard with Vic Winner describing the origins of voodoo and its possible relation to the murders at hand gets a little technical and talky, but it’s most certainly relevant, and viewers should pay attention here, as it contains all of the technical details of the plot.
Naschy had researched the subject so well that the rituals and the flow of the film’s events apparently have striking similarities to real voodoo practices, and so real cultists that had seen the film, claiming there was a hidden message in it for them, took notice of this and actually tracked Naschy down in order to try and get him to join their cult and become their leader. A horrific tale Naschy accounts in his memoirs.

The satanic nightmare that the lead character, Elvire (Romy), has is just kick ass with Naschy as a terrifying Satan. The nightmare is a slick portrayal of the cumulative fears that Elvire has had up to this point in the film and ties in so well with the “Devil’s House” legend the train station manager, MacMurdo (Luis Ciges), told her about upon her arrival to Llangwell. It portrays the distressing effect that everything has had on her, and it’s as if the so called “Devil’s house” fed her the nightmare. It’s an excellent set piece made extremely effective with the way everyone was painted and made up. It reminded me a lot of an awesome dinner table scene in Klimovsky's Dracula Saga. Look out for the Goldfinger style Kala (Miller), stirring her urn with her skin painted gold.

The movie is just so darn pleasingly gory, especially with a surprise decapitation (I’m not talking about the chicken) and, one of my favorites, a beer can to the jugular, where a zombie girl in the morgue begins to rise and walks over to the morgue attendant eating dinner, wraps her arm around him, grabs a can off the table, pulls his head back, buries the can into his neck, and starts to dig and twist, holding him like that for a while. It worries me that the scene turns me on a little. Normally, in the case of a seductive vampire girl, I would say something like “she could bite on my neck, any day,” but in this case, it just doesn’t sound right at all to say “she could drill a razor sharp metal can into my jugular, any day.” Yeeaacchh! I love the way she tosses the can up in slow motion while walking away afterwards! The slow motion filming of the zombie gals works on a similar level as The Blind Dead in that they seem to exist in their own nightmare world that parallels reality.

The ending isn’t bad but is hurt a little from a cliché seen countless times in other movies, where the police inspector shows up at the last second, out of nowhere, to fire a shot and save the day and bring everything to a close. You guys know the one. Awesome ending credits too, by the way.

I also can’t help mentioning a familiar scenario seen frequently with Naschy’s characters, where after becoming ill and bedridden he’s provided bedside comfort from a gorgeous lover while recovering. I often wonder, being that Naschy wrote the scripts, if this may’ve been a prevalent sexual fantasy of his. 

Overall, Vengeance of the Zombies may seem a little meandering, but the muddled array of elements are connected eventually, and it all ends up making a lot of sense, especially if you were paying attention to the discussion scene at Scotland Yard and everything Krishna accounts at the end. It’s great, worthwhile horror viewing and an exotic oddity that even seasoned cult film fans may find, like Lydia from Beetlejuice, strange and unusual.  

"They told me the house was haunted. Foolish superstitions... The place is peaceful and beautiful. Do you think that something this pure can harbor any malign manifestation?"--Krishna/Paul Naschy


  1. Excellent write up! I haven't seen this film, but your review made me realise that I've yet to cover Paul Naschy in any shape or form on The Celluloid Highway. Perhaps it is time to rectify this?

    1. Thank you, Shaun! That means a lot. I hope you decide to cover some Naschy movies at your blog. I'd be curious to know what your thoughts are.

  2. You can never have too much Naschy. Great article, and as always some of the best screenshots.

    1. Thanks, Jonny! Looking forward to the upcoming Gore-a-thon you've put together.