Tuesday, July 5, 2011

VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES (La Rebelion de las Muertas, 1973)

Paul Naschy's movies are to be appreciated as spectacle or not at all. Dedicated to making himself a horror man on the Anglo-American model, Naschy wrote and/or directed (under his real name of Jacinto Molina) a spree of films designed to establish him as a master character creator in the classical mode. Rebelion de las Muertas, which Leon Klimovsky directed from Molina's script, is a blatant display of his versatility as Naschy plays three roles -- though one (the Devil) appears only in a dream sequence. The point of the film -- though some may dispute whether it actually has one -- is to show off how different Naschy can look. That extends to the eye-blistering variety of costumes he wears in his principal role as the tragic Hindu mystic Krishna. Never mind that Naschy is about as convincing in this role as El Santo might be; the fashions of Paul Naschy are a spectacle in their own right.

The story is unapologetically preposterous. Someone is killing young English girls and turning them into zombies -- the slow, servile sort, not the brain eaters. One such zombie woman attacks Elvira Irving (the eyebrowless "Rommy") but can't finish her despite getting her hands around Elvira's throat. Elvira seeks refuge at the Welsh retreat of her friend Krishna, who we've already seen putting on a show of his spiritual detachment from the mortification of his flesh. Krishna has retreated to Llangfair to achieve further purity, but the house he's acquired has the reputation among the locals as a "devil house" whose erstwhile occupants, the Whatley family, were massacred by peasants for purported Satanic practices centuries earlier. The vivid tales -- dismissed by the otherwise utterly credulous Krishna -- inspire a nightmare of blood sacrifice to an admittedly impressive demon Naschy in Elvira's sleep. But her waking nightmares will prove much worse.

Elvira's friend Dr. Redgrave (Vic Winner) has been called in by New Scotland Yard to assist in the investigation of the murders of young women. The killer's m.o. is a strange melange of voodoo and thugee motifs, which is meant to remind us that Krishna has a collection of thugee weapons and had spent some time in Africa during his spiritual wanderings. We also eventually learn that the victims' families had all spent time in Benares, India, and were there when "something violent, like a killing," happened there -- around the same time when Krishna says he made a hasty departure from Benares for personal reasons to begin his world travels. But some other details of the killings, like the way a morgue security guard has his throat cut by an open beer can, are still more mysterious. And the fact that the real killer, the mastermind who commands the zombies, dresses sort of like Guy Fawkes (or "V for Vendetta," if you prefer), albeit with a different mask for nearly every outing and a familiar barrel-chested physique, makes you wonder even more.

These zombies may look friendly, but they're out for revenge and can turn anything into a weapon!

It turns out that Krishna isn't such a master as he tells folks. Despite convulsive fits that make you wonder whether he's going to break out in fur and fangs, he eventually explains to Elvira that he's under the voodoo control of his reckless brother Katanka, who raped and killed a British girl in Benares way back when. Even though "the death was made to look accidental," local Britons promptly attempted to lynch Katanka by burning his house down around him. He escaped with severe burns, an itch for revenge, and a scheme to achieve immortality through voodoo. Katanka means to kill the daughters of the British families who lynched him and attain eternal life by consuming Elvira's blood, with the assistance of some chicken-chopping apparent defector from the Mummenschanz troupe. But if Krishna can break his brother's mental control, Scotland Yard can intervene, and a representative of the international voodoo governing body (really!) can crack down on Katanka's "betrayal," the day might yet be saved....

The auteur theory has done much to enhance the bad movie viewing experience. If you accept Vengeance of the Zombies (which finally hit America around 1980 as Walk of the Dead) for what it is, a Paul Naschy star vehicle and an episode in Molina's creative life, it becomes more compelling precisely for (and not in spite of) the creative shortcomings that are practically an authorial stamp. Molina's quest was to recreate the thrill of his youthful viewing of Universal horror films while translating their archetypes into modern exploitation idiom. His writing often went well beyond the scope of Universal, encompassing more ambitious "history of cruelty" stories and sometimes achieving evocative, atmospheric effects that are sometimes timeless, sometimes indelibly of his own time. His challenge was to find out how many variations he could wring out of his essential theme of a charismatically doomed man, and the effort is often as interesting as the outcome. The point of any given Naschy picture isn't the story as much as Paul's performance, but confronting Naschy is kind of like waging war on terror -- you're either with him or against him. There's pretty much no reason to look at Vengeance if you aren't interested in seeing Naschy do his thing. And even if you "get" Naschy, this particular film is far from his finest hour and a half. Nevertheless, there's something compelling about it in all its tackiness and misplaced musical funkiness that I've found in nearly every Naschy film I've seen: that unselfconscious, practically uncritical ambition that drives the writer and actor to make a spectacle of himself. Some people may watch his films to laugh at him, but for many others Molina, through Naschy, was living their own dream, maybe even dying for their sins. That's how movie cults are made. I don't know if I count as a cultist, but no matter how bad a Naschy film may be on some objective level, I'm always ready to watch him try again.

And here's an English language trailer, uploaded to YouTube by freyacatoct.


Bill D. Courtney said...

never hear of this Naschy flick and I am searching for now. Thanks! As a swami he looks like Marlon Brando in Candy.

Kev D. said...

I saw this at the store the other day and ALMOST picked it up... I just might have to go back now.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Excellently observed and eloquently stated, as always, Sam! As you're aware, VotZ holds a special place in my heart and the Duke's as it was the film that started us on our Mad Movie journey. The wild plot, the strangely effective slow-motion zombie women, the world's quickest garroting, and that wonderfully out-of-place score! To say nothing of Naschy himself, as a triple threat. As you say, you either go along with Naschy or you stand aside and let him through. I always go along, and he never fails to make me happy.

Thanks for a great write-up Samuel--it was a real pleasure to read. :)

venoms5 said...

Good stuff as always, Sam. This is an awful film, but one that's awfully entertaining. Naschy didn't think much of it, either, but it does have an undeniable wacky charm about it that surpasses some of his more monotonous ventures. The man was unmistakably talented and surely did his best work when he was in total control. There's a vast difference in the films he also directed compared with those of other directors he worked with at least in my eyes.

The first film of his that I remember ever being exposed to HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN, but it was NIGHT OF THE HOWLING BEAST that made me a fan. Another wacky one that's a lot of fun. I wish I still owned that Super Video VHS.