Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981)
It’s hard enough to take an Italian zombie flick seriously when the young boy in peril is clearly a man-child. Add in a poor English dub from an older actor who figured speaking in a light falsetto was the way to go, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster, hilarity, or both. The Zombie Film genre is a resilient branch of the horror community. It may have reached its peak in the mid-2010's as The Walking Dead’s audience numbers dwindled and box office returns were disappointing to say the least. There have been some bright spots, with the releases of Train to Busan, Dead Snow 2, Maggie, Overlord, and even the unsettling The Wailing, which isn’t specifically a zombie film but definitely owes something to the undead masses. Like hordes of decayed corpses, standing upright and shuffling along with only one goal: “the consumption of human flesh,” zombie mania comes in waves. Just what is so inherently compelling about the living dead that inspires filmmakers to take a whack at them time and time again? A film’s success often hinges on its emotional stakes. Sure...whiz-bang effects, copious nudity, and bloody carnage can certainly draw in a crowd on opening day, but while Dracula, Jason, Freddy, Michael, Chucky, et al. are unrepentant monsters whom protagonists wouldn’t hesitate to destroy, a zombie could very well be your best friend. The transformation aspect, wherein a zombie’s bite will change the unfortunate recipient into a zombie themself, is very much a 20th century invention that’s often attributed to George A. Romero (and Living Dead co-writer John Russo). How horrifying to think that someone you love could be capable of changing into a murderous creature hellbent on gnawing your face off? There’s built-in drama thanks to the near-vampiric abilities of these relentless ghouls. Thanks to the success of Romero’s towering Dawn of the Dead (1978), the Italians took note and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979) solidified the commercial viability of this relatively cheap enterprise. A slew of knockoffs followed and while many have better effects, story, acting, and production value; there’s no denying the utter joy one gets from experiencing the gloriously thin plot of Andrea Bianchi’s relentless Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981).
It’s been foretold, likely within pasta-shaped social circles that, in Italy, all you have to do is walk by a screenwriter and you’ll get a credit on their next movie. By that logic, I’d assume solo writer Piero Ragnoli, a prolific scribe with credits like Navajo Joe (1966) and Nightmare City (1980), must be a recluse. Sporting the flimsiest of set-ups, Burial Ground throws logical storytelling out the window in favor of a highlight reel of zombie tropes. While many folks complained about fast zombies in Zack Snyder’s shockingly good Dawn of the Dead remake (2004), I’m not even sure what to think when Ragnoli and director Bianchi (whose other best-known work is 1975’s Strip Nude for your Killer) present us with zombies that literally arm themselves. No, I don’t mean they take a severed arm and snack on it or maybe rip off their own appendage to slap somebody around as you would at a zombie board meeting. These worm-infested freaks find an arsenal in a shed and use them to pull off one helluva home invasion. While the zombies’ surprising skill with axes and throwing spikes (more on that later) is impressive, the other members of the cast are a tad underdeveloped. Save for a mother-son relationship that takes quite a turn three quarters of the way into the film, every other character is merely fresh meat to provide a tasty snack for those pesky zed-words.
Whether you call it bold or lazy, the plot is so incredibly simple that one expects some kind of clever twist or subverting of the genre, but the film genuinely has only sex and gore on its mind. Say what you will, but Burial Ground dives right in, literally, as the camera drops down into cavernous ruins, where a Professor Ayres (Raimondo Barbieri) is busy hammering away at things he shouldn’t. While the wonky “wah-wah” score plays, he dramatically whispers “I am the only one who knows the secret.” A latter-day Joseph Smith, he discovers a plate of some kind, which one thinks could be the reason for the zombies’ later attack on his castle. Instead, the filmmakers make the courageous choice to ignore this possibility completely. Does the professor perhaps invoke a curse or release a deadly toxin which re-animates long-dead bodies? Nope. He goes back to hammering and the zombies just show up. They don’t like their noisy interloper, so they descend upon him, in a cool reveal which is slightly ruined by the poorly-acted dub. Bianchi’s much more talented counterparts Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi’s films tended to have decent dubbing (although the ‘Bob’ dub in The House by the Cemetery makes one long to go deaf), but the acting by the English-dub crew is particularly poor, with most of the acting never going beyond melodrama and some of it coming off as intentionally comic, as if the actors were having a laugh at the film’s expense.
A trio of couples arrive at the Professor’s castle and it turns out...everyone is horny. The editing is jagged; abrupt. The film wastes no time getting hot and steamy by cutting directly to Leslie (Antonella Antinori, With Aunt It’s not a Sin), wearing a tacky gold top she found in a trunk. The charming James (Simone Mattioli) seductively informs her: “You look like a little whore, but I like that about you.” Pure class, right there. Commander Bianchi, initiate dual sex scenes. Aye, Capitan. While Leslie and James bone peacefully, George (Roberto Caporali) and Evelyn (Mariangela Giordano, Vengeance) are interrupted by a door swinging open and a small shadow approaching. In creeps Evelyn’s adolescent son Michael, played by 25-year-old actor Pietro Barzocchini (credited as Peter Bark), in his most famous role. Since Italian law forbade children to take part in scenes of extreme sex and violence, Bianchi rather cleverly circumvented these restrictions by casting a little person actor, which in turn provided the film with its strangest non-zombie character. With his wide eyes and emaciated features, Michael is one creepy-ass kid. Imagine Bud Cort on a hunger strike. What makes his performance even more bizarre is the dubbing actor’s approach, which consists of speaking Michael’s dialogue in a slightly higher range. The constant use of “Mama” is both laughable and unnerving. Evelyn isn’t exactly clever, as she leaps out of bed and tries unsuccessfully to cover herself, even though she could’ve just stayed under the blankets. One shot shows her covered, but in another, her breasts are exposed as Michael stares, his eyes like saucers.
The third and least-interesting couple start off with a bit of intrigue that quickly goes nowhere, leaving them merely attractive blanks. Blond Janet (Karin Well, Dangerous Love), who bears a striking resemblance to Kate Hudson), apparently had a nightmare, even though we didn’t get a dream sequence of any kind, and Mark (Gianluigi Chirrizzi, Terror Express) seeks to calm her down. She’s had a premonition of something terrible, but her hinted-at psychic ability is completely forgotten. They head out for an impromptu photo session followed by some passionate necking in the grass.
Cuts occur out of nowhere, with the maid Kathryn (Anna Valente) and butler Nicholas (stunt man Claudio Zucchet) having their maiding and butling interrupted by light bulbs exploding. While Evelyn inexplicably does target practice indoors and James and Leslie snog by a fountain, the zombies slowly head off to “work.” The look of most Italian zombies varied wildly and these ones range from kinda-cool, with maggots and slimy worms, to downright bargain basement and laughable. What’s even more egregious is that most of them look dirty and truly ancient, but others are obviously much younger, with clear skin showing through patches of grey skin and red blood. A few of them even pass quite close to the camera. Why wouldn’t they be placed in the background?! It’s as if the actor was halfway done with their makeup, got annoyed, and said, “That’s it! I’m done!” leaping off the chair and heading to set. Still, the zombies, as in Fulci’s masterful Zombie (aka Zombi 2, aka Zombie Flesh Eaters), are lovingly photographed in gruesome close-ups. Their appearance is cheap, but fun. Perhaps the people involved with the dubbing were even enchanted with their appearance, since they dub Leslie saying “James, look!” when her mouth is very much not moving.
The first big attack achieves a relatively solid amount of suspense, as Mark and Janet rub up against each other and a crawling zombie gets closer and closer, finally grabbing hold of Mark’s leg. The possibility of a three-way is quickly ditched as the pack slowly surrounds them. They rush off, but Janet’s ankle gets caught in a super-random bear trap. She screams non-stop while Mark tries to free her and her cries of pain oddly come off as somewhat orgasmic. Is she into this? I think she’s into this. Mark can’t get her free, but luckily James and Leslie show up and bash the cockblocker’s mushy skulls in with some big ass rocks. Of course, the gloriously papier-mache-like smashing of heads occurs in another dimension since the background for most effect shots happens in pitch darkness. The splattered pile of brain goo resembles pink pasta as we cut away to find out Michael fancies himself something of a perfumer.
“This cloth smells of death,” the ‘little’ tyke comments after sniffing a rag. It’s one of the most famous lines from the film since it’s both an inane bit of dialogue and ultimately meaningless. The zombies invade and George valiantly tries to shoot them; green goo dribbling out of their bullet wounds. They tear George apart Romero-style and feast on his guts while Evelyn clutches Michael. They eventually set one of the fiends on fire in a pretty decent slow-motion scene.
Even though they’ve pretty much figured out how to kill them, the survivors decide to barricade themselves inside the castle rather than form a frontal assault. That turns out to be a seriously poor decision as one zombie, who is evidently a ninja, throws a goddamn spike into the maid’s hand, immobilizing her. The zombies hold up a huge scythe and slowly decapitate her, catching her disembodied head like it’s a goddamn wedding bouquet. Arming themselves with various tools, they attack the doors with a vengeance and although James is a crack shot with a shot gun, they quickly run out of bullets. “Shells, call ‘em shells!”
Somehow, Janet made it out of the trap with nothing more than a nasty scar, which is bullshit, and Leslie leaves to get her some bandages. A zombie grabs her through a window in a pale imitation of the infamous wood-in-the-eye scene from Fulci’s Zombie and she’s yanked into the glass shards. What’s truly odd is that the zombie appears to have a heart attack and simply falls backward. Nicholas, who really has no reason to continue serving these assholes, endlessly lights candles as the horde breaks through the front door. They fight back and Evelyn hesitates as she unsheathes a sword and approaches a zombie trying to climb through the window. Don’t hesitate, stupid! She finally grows a pair and even decapitates one of them. This leads us into the most famous and insanely unique element of the film.
Andrea Bianchi is a forgotten Italian exploitation filmmaker, but the one thing that sets him apart from his more successful counterparts is the recurring theme of incest that pops up in more than a few of his films. Michael is so thankful to his mother that he begins kissing her, first affectionately, as a son might, then inappropriately passionately. He tries to suckle her breasts and reach between her legs. This incest development arrives completely out-of-left field and it’s satisfying to see Evelyn slap the shit out of her freak son. He protests wildly and runs off. “What’s wrong?! I’m your son!!” I don’t even know where to begin with that statement.
Leslie has turned and Evelyn later finds her munching hungrily on part of Michael. She has an absolute meltdown and begins slamming Leslie’s head against a tub as milky red liquid flows out of her skull. We get more zombie action which, by the way, shouldn’t involve breathing. I find it hard to believe that zombies can breathe, but we get that on the soundtrack. The professor returns and eats Nick. The remaining group make it to some sort of atrium and then enter a monastery, where James interrupts a group of monks meditating. No music plays and the scene is fairly eerie. The monks each look up, revealing themselves to be none other than the undead. Of course, this is all ludicrous and impossible by the well-established laws of movie zombies, but it’s still fun to see them play dress up. James is toast, or rather, a meatball, and Mark, Janet, and Evelyn rush out to a builder’s workshop.
Inside, they try to block the entrance but find a zombie upstairs. In a grainy, jarring shot, Mark throws the guy over a balcony in slow-motion. Next up is Michael, who appears in the hallway. Evelyn, overjoyed at seeing her eerie son, offers up her bare nipple, which he bites off big time. In quite a downer of an ending, the rest of the munch bunch push Mark into an electric saw and several hands paw at Janet. The film ends with a freeze frame of her screaming face.
While the music by Elsio Mancuso and Berto Pisano (Smiles on a Murderer, Five for Hell) and cinematography by Gianfranco Maioletti are passable, the editing is clumsy, though not incoherent. What’s astonishing is that there’s no credited editor on the film at all. The closest one gets is ‘Continuity,’ which is credited to Paola Villa, but she’s a script supervisor, not an editor. Very strange. One person even received a credit for the curtains, so don’t tell me there was no editor on this film. While Mauro Gavazzi acted as the chief makeup artist and would go also work on Argoman and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn!, the special effects makeup artist Rosario Prestopino would be a major player in the Argento/Bava/Fulci/Soavi crews, working on City of the Living Dead, Demons, Opera, and The Church.
Bianchi’s vision is lurid and frenetic, giving little to no depth to his characters and introducing idea after idea without any follow-up. Many moments simply feel like something wild the crew came up with on the spot, so they shot it. Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror is poorly-made trash, but it’s shamelessly outrageous and very enjoyable.