Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Vengeance of the Zombies: or, Groovy Ghouls and Naschy Rules

Everyone is looking for that one thing that will make him happy, that will provide him with the inner peace he needs to finally stop all his striving and struggling and just enjoy the mystery of being. For some, that thing seems to be money. For others, it's love. Still others seek achievement in a chosen field, such as voodoo or Eastern mysticism. And for others, the only thing that will let them truly enjoy life is the freedom from the worry of death. In the low-budget 1973 Spanish horror masterpiece Vengeance of the Zombies, we get a view into all these disparate but interconnected struggles, and in the end are left to question what we, the viewers, truly need in order to be happy.

Our story opens with two such poor, struggling souls, a middle-aged man and his wife who are the caretakers of a run-down London cemetery. They are not happy, for they have erroneously concluded that the route to true happiness runs through is Monetary Gainsville, and the avenue they have chosen to arrive there is grave-robbing. Give them points for leaving the beaten path there, anyway. But alas, as they bicker acidly at one another in a very well-furnished dining room about whether to rob the grave of a recently murdered socialite (just buried that afternoon), we can tell that their struggles are misdirected, money will not save them, and they will know only tragedy rather than true happiness. Sure enough, when they break into the tomb to steal the jewels from the fresh corpse, a mysterious villain locks them in the crypt and performs a strange ritual whose immediate effect is to raise the theft victim from the dead for a bit of posthumous vengeance on her would-be robbers. Not five minutes into the movie, and already one zombie has had her revenge. Score!

Next we meet Elvira, a naive-if-no-longer-young socialite, friend of the murdered and resurrected corpse from the first scene. Elvira, like so many of the idle rich, is seeking the deeper meaning of life through wacky mysticism. She and her friend (let's call him Antonio, I forget the character's name), a psychologist and expert in the paranormal who often works with Scotland Yard, are on their way to a seance held by an Indian guru named (what else?) Krishna, played by the inimitably handsome and beefy Paul Naschy.

Krishna offers Elvira inner peace and happiness through meditation and hot-coal-handling, but Antonio is skeptical. He hasn't time to talk his friend out of listening to the guru-or-charlatan, however, as he's very urgently needed offscreen. When later that night Elvira is attacked in her house by her dead friend and a masked assailant wielding an axe, in a massacre that leaves her father and butler among the dead (not counting the already dead among them), the stress and trauma convinces Elvira to travel to Krishna's country estate for spiritual cleansing and perhaps a little Kama-Sutra with the guru.

However, a helpful-if-not-Chamber-of-Commerce-mindful station agent meets her at the train to tell her the town she has come to is EEEEEVIL, and was once the haunt of Satanists who held their black masses and sacrifices in the very house where Krishna now preaches peace and love. Soon a fire-scarred henchman arrives to take Elvira to Krishna's house and silence the ticket seller. Mystery thicker than the, London fog abounds.

From there things only get more complex. Another horrible murder occurs in London, one more socialite down (after showing a rather bounteous if aged set of maracas). Elvira is plagued by 70s freak-out style dreams wherein Krishna-as-Lucifer and an undead station agent threaten her with pointy objects. A morgue attendant is murdered with a soda can (!) by his recently-risen charges, while the mysterious masked figure looms, apparently seeking his own bliss in a compicated vengeance/voodoo ritual that will somehow grant him immortality. Antonio is called in by Scotland Yard to help solve the mysteries of these socialites who keep getting murdered and whose bodies then disappear. A houseservant who wants to warn Elvira about something is disposed of in a most grisly manner. More zombies show up. Antonio, on his way to Krishna's to meet Elvira, runs down another bicycling houseservant of Krishna's and later ends up necking with her by the river over the broken remains of her bike. It all comes to a head in a genuinely surprising turn of events with the introduction of a motivation I admit I'd never have guessed. Even the deus ex machina is not your average machine and has a surprising combustion under in its pistons.

There's so much to love about this movie, but chief among its many virtues is its wildly entertaining 70s jazz soundtrack, doubtless one of the front runners for "most gleefully inappropriate movie soundtrack ever." An early ax-murder gives a taste, as the skull is cleaved to the tune of wicka-wicka guitars and Hammond organs. You'll be tapping your toes as you cover your eyes, and it just keeps getting better the longer it goes on.

Another thing worth note is the otherworldly atmosphere the director and cinematography give the zombies. Granted, the makeup is your basic white-facepaint with dark circles under the eyes, but the zombie women pull some convincing rigor-mortis grimaces that make them look incredibly strange and more than a little unnerving. Furthermore, the zombies are filmed only in slow motion, lending a unique alien quality to their movements and interactions with the other characters.

The cinematic highlight is the dream scene featuring Naschy as the devil, an episode that will haunt your nightmares. Biblical demons, Hindu golden women, undead train system employees, and the burn-victim henchman are just a few of the hellish components of this Boschian revelry. Effectively creepy while at the same time grin-inducing, you don't know whether to laugh or scream. And with his pointed nose, piercing eyes, and rock-solid eyebrows, Naschy makes a very convincing Satan, you must give him that.

I mean, seriously. Just LOOK at him!

As to the effects, it's mostly just buckets of blood poured down a face or spurting from a prop knife drawn across the neck, but there's one real show-stopping effect late in the movie that pulled an involuntary "Holy shit!" from my throat. You'll know it when you see it. There's also some great cinematography in a scene in a meat packing industries office-building/warehouse/ceo fuckshack, where a guard must go down a long hallway of colorful hanging meat, never sure what lurks just beyond the next carcass...

And then of course there's the unintentional comedy. In addition to the hilarious yet oddly compelling soundtrack, there's a host of other "they can't be serious" moments. For instance, apparently everyone in England decorates their homes with plaques displaying real weapons that their servants keep honed to razor-sharpness; grave-robbing pays well enough to keep a nice house with a tasteful china cabinet and place settings; station agents are the anti-chamber of commerce; if Kali worship is good, then voodoo AND Kali worship AND satanism's even better; soda cans are deadly weapons; Scotland Yard accepts the existence of zombies much more quickly than you'd think they would; car accidents are great ways to meet chicks--and many other bits of wisdom peppered throughout.

Other things to look out for:
  • The most compliant strangling victim in history
  • The shortest fatal strangulation by garrotte ever filmed
  • A great "What? Oh shit, another guard!" take from the villain
  • A blinking corpse (must be a muscle reflex)
  • The "you thought I'd saved you, huh? You fools!" ending
  • An early-career cameo by "V" from V for Vendetta!
Vengeance of the Zombies is a movie that truly has it all, a treasure trove of enjoyment from both the "so bad it's good" side and the "hey, that's actually pretty good" side. So in the end, as you ask yourself, "What is it that will make me truly happy?" the implied answer is unmistakable: "More movies like Vengeance of the Zombies!"

For filmic competence, 1.5 out of 3 thumbs. For sheer entertainment, 3 out of 3 thumbs. Average: 2.25, with another half point added for this being the movie that introduced me to the wonders of Naschy, for which I can never be grateful enough. , bringing us to a 2.75 thumbs rating. Don't delay, watch this one today. You'll be glad you did. So saith Krishna!

Word to the wise: Deimos Entertainment just released a slam-bang special edition DVD of this fun flick, available at Best Buy in a two-pack with the equally excellent Naschy flick Night of the Werewolf, a steal at $20 for the lot. If you're even slightly curious about Naschy, you need to pick up these DVDs NOW.

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