Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Night of the Walking Dead / El extraño amor de los vampiros (1975)

"The sun shining in my dreams 
  The light is getting hot
  Saved by eternity
  I have seen death so close
 Away, awhile the angels crossed the sky
 But I'm condemned to stay here." -- Heavenly  

In his memoirs, Paul Naschy said he had referred Argentine film directing stalwart Leon Klimovsky to be director of his seminal Spanish horror classic La noche de Walpurgis, AKA The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), because one of the film’s financers wanted a quick and reliable director.

It would seem that Klimovsky was known for his fast shooting and workmanlike skills, and yet he managed to direct some real atmospheric classics of Spanish horror, often on low budgets and high pressured shooting schedules, and he introduced an oft-imitated technique of filming vampires and zombies in slow-motion, capturing a uniquely nightmarish plane of existence in the process.
Klimovsky’s vampire films are exceptional and interestingly varied, and they belong alongside the best of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. The aforementioned The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman was a record breaking box office success that revived the Spanish horror fantasy genre. The other Klimovsky directed vampire films that followed were the epic The Dracula Saga (1973), the more grindhouse flavored The Vampires’ Night Orgy (1974), and the romantic, adventurous, and somewhat eclectic Night of the Walking Dead / The Strange Love of the Vampires, the topic for tonight

It is obvious that Night draws some inspiration from Roman Polanski’s brilliant horror-comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), telling a different story in a similar setting, minus the snowy ambiance, even reinventing the memorable vampire ballroom dancing scene. The Spanish take, being memorable in its own odd way, is an amusing, Fellini-esque party-scape with hedonistic, hyperactive vampires amidst candles and colorful balloons, really livening up some old decrepit ruins. These party scenes do end up being a lot of fun.

Although there are a few comical elements, particularly with the character of Mijai (Barta Barri), Night really isn’t a comedy. It is still quite a remarkable accomplishment with an impressive, poignant exploration of the immortality of a vampire, Count Rudolph de Winberg (Carlos Ballesteros), made most apparent by the bittersweet closing scene at the film’s end.

Both of its alternate contrasting titles could be said to have arisen from a peculiar duality in the film, as it offers two different styles of vampire lore in the same movie, that of the romantic more human vampire in love with a mortal (The Strange Love of the Vampires) and the more ghoulish vampires who rise from their graves at night (sort of like zombies) to kill villagers (Night of the Walking Dead). Both routes could easily make for their own separate movie, but they are nonetheless satisfactorily explored herein, at times running separately in different directions, momentarily being fused into one, and also running side by side with charming juxtapositions.

An interesting dichotomy that envelops the central story premise is the separate light and dark worlds presented in the film, the living and the undead, split in to two opposing cultures, with its lead Catherine (Emma Cohen), suffering from a terminal illness, being drawn from one side to the other by a gentlemanly undead count (Ballesteros) who has fallen in love with her. She falls for him too, but complications and conflicts inevitably ensue as both cultures are at war, with humans hunting vampires and vampires hunting, and converting, humans, leaving Catherine with an interesting decision as to whether or not to succumb to her terminal illness or become an immortal but cursed being in the world of the vampires and in turn forsake her father (Cristino Almodóvar) and become an enemy to her own kind. A vampire would normally be like a parasite to their victim, but thinking about it in a certain way Rudolph is more like a savior in Catherine’s case.

A little patience is required at first, as the movie takes its time developing its intriguing premise, first setting the stage of a superstitious nineteenth century village with a vampire problem, establishing the conflict between both species confined solely, with little regard to the outside world, to the small isolated village, its forested surroundings, graveyard, and castle ruins.

A despondent mood is established early on with Catherine being introduced at her sister’s (Amparo Climent) wake, where, per village custom, a stake is hammered through her chest, despite protests from the deceased’s mother (Tota Alba) and the village doctor (Lorenzo Robledo). It is mentioned in passing reference by the doctor that Catherine’s days are numbered as well, painting a depressing, dismal existence for the reclusive, frequently bed-ridden protagonist that is, like in Al otro lado del espejo (1973), another sad character role for Cohen, complimented beautifully by her naturally sad eyes. Furthermore, the nature of the movie requires a protagonist beautiful enough to soften the lead villain into something not so much like a villain anymore, and Emma Cohen has that beauty.

There’s this underlying feeling that becomes more and more certain that another world is calling out to the doomed protagonist. It is attracted to Catherine and is trying its hardest to attract her, developing a pathway, literally and figuratively, for her, ultimately creating an evolutionary change in Catherine from innocent to corrupt. Her misfortunes, such as her illness, her dishonest, cheating lover, and her sister’s death followed by her undead resurrection, make Catherine vulnerable to count Rudolph and what he can offer her.

The count is so gentlemanly; I admire his smooth remarks towards Catherine at the dinner table when they first meet. Some of the most interesting in-depth moments occur when she and Rudolph are connecting and having somewhat profound conversations, romanticizing the idea of death, at his castle late at night in his stylish and wonderfully lit chamber, while his hordes of vampire followers are in the background partying like it's 1999.

I also sense a rebellious youth analogy, which can be detected after Catherine falls further for Rudolph, who represents a love interest that is at odds with her vampire-hunter father’s interests, as Catherine becomes ever more conflicted with her father and more affected by outside influence. He’s the un-approving father who only wants what’s best for his daughter, who is stubbornly disobeying him. Rudolph is almost like a substitute father figure who, in Catherine’s mind, can offer her more than what her real father can.

Catherine’s evolutionary change first becomes quite startling when she is given the opportunity by the count to make a personal decision as to whether or not to pardon her past unappreciative, unfaithful lover Jean, freshly captured and brought before her so she can either grant him forgiveness, sparing his life in the process, or deny him, dooming him to be communally drained by vampires. Her decision is most pleasing.

Her change reaches an apex when she seduces and kills the butler, after being put on house arrest by her father.

Aside from Catherine’s interesting dilemma, the film also plays out like a traditional monster movie, as well, with angry mobs--the kind seen numerous times--setting out in the name of all that’s holy to destroy the monsters.

A scene where a villager hammers a spike into the forehead of a sleeping female corpse/vampire is very realistic to the point of being uncomfortable. (I hope it wasn’t done with a real corpse. My guess is that it was a hallow spike that crumbled away from the bottom as it was hammered down.)

Night was filmed in Talamanca de Jarama, Madrid, Spain. With its old buildings and ruins, it feels steeped in history and makes for a terrific natural shooting location that adds a lot more impact to the film. One memorable and frequently repeated shot is of an old castle on a hill, with a legend behind it, that Catherine usually views from her bedroom window, which serves as the count’s lair.

(Stereotypically, being a count, having a castle, and a hunchback servant, Rudolph feels a lot like a very popular literary vampire character that has been and continues to be re-realized countless times in film, video games, comics, etc.)

It’s probably the most unusual out of the Klimovsky directed vampire entries, and it’s hard to determine if it's complex or just plain messy, but there’s a lot to like about Night of the Walking Dead. It’s full of excellent moments, and perhaps a few slow ones, but overall it’s surprisingly good, given how underexposed it is. There are some slightly comedic sexploitative elements thrown in no doubt for commercial reasons, but these are practically forgotten over the movie’s stronger points. The ending is unexpected and leaves one feeling impressed.

© At the Mansion of Madness

Images sourced from: NIGHT-OF-THE-WALKING-DEAD


  1. Very insightful review. It took me a few false starts due to the slow first half-hour and bad VHS but once it got going, it became a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I hadn't picked up on that duality but now, looking back, I think this nature is what unites the film's elements and prevents what could have been a kitchen sink affair.

    Catherine's transformation from benign and gloomy to rebellious and morally questionable made her a very interesting character. The vampires were also pretty scary despite their fun-loving parties. I especially liked the scene where the sister approaches the window only to be repelled by the cross marked by the mother's ring. The nail in the head also impressed me. My guess is that they used a really convincing mold.

    The score is great ranging from the love theme and Edda Dell'Orso vocals to the old-fashioned melodramatic violins to the unsettling drones. However, the electric guitar in the opening credits felt a bit out of place. Really hope this film gets a restoration. Some of these stills look like classical paintings (esp. the one with the bed)!

    1. I had a lot of memories of a dark, grainy film, but I also remembered the fun vampire parties and a really good tragic character played by Emma Cohen, but that was about all I remembered; so I was surprised by how much more there was, a lot of it admittedly slow moving, that I had forgotten when I re-watched it. Aside from not having a good enough quality version, I do believe it is the slow first half-hour you mentioned that has prevented this movie from being more popular. That part you’re talking about, where Mariam visits Catherine, outside her window on the second story of the house, is probably when the movie starts generating more steam (shortly after the count shows up to dinner).

      I’m glad you agree with regards to the duality. I thought I might have been taking a chance identifying it, as perhaps it might have just been imagined by me as an attempt to try and forgive the movie for being a messy kitchen sink affair, but I’m glad that is not the case.

      While I didn’t dislike it, the part at the beginning with the electric guitar and filtered shots does feel out of place, considering that it is a little misleading, generating a different tone from the movie itself. It was still an interesting idea though.

      Indeed, every fictional writer eventually learns that evolutionary change is a big part of an interesting protagonist and Catherine is a stellar example.

      As always thank you, Terence, for the thoughtful comment and for reading and also for the tip on the lobby cards. I really do like what you’ve said about some of the stills looking like classical paintings! I hadn’t noticed before, but I agree.

      By the way, you’re probably right about it being a really convincing mold.

    2. I also wanted to mention that I actually liked the dubbing for Rudolph, Catherine, and her sister Miriam "child, at last you're here", but some of it is bad like the doctor: "damn those superstitious fools."

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