Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror directed by Andrea Bianchi
The impact that George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968) had on the future of the so-called “zombie film” was so enormous as to practically constitute a sea change. Up until then, in pictures such as White Zombie (1932), Revolt of the Zombies (1936), King of the Zombies (1941), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and even as late as 1966’s The Plague of the Zombies, these creatures had been presented as essentially harmless beings; hypnotized or drugged, living automatons who carried out the commands of their masters. The Romero film transformed the zombies into ravenous gut munchers; the revivified dead, hungry for human flesh. Since Night of the Living Dead, many films have played on this concept with varying success and degrees of imagination, the best of the bunch (such as Romero’s five sequels, Lucio Fulci’s 1979 homage Zombie, 2002’s 28 Days Later, 2013’s World War Z) tweaking the formula with interesting new twists. And then there’s 1981’s Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror, which is seemingly pleased to jettison everything except bloody zombie carnage in the pursuit of a memorable time for the viewer. And for some, I suppose that might just be enough.
The film is too easily synopsized. A professor putters around in an Etruscan graveyard and somehow, in a manner never clearly explained, causes the long-entombed dead to rise. Meanwhile, three couples arrive at a nearby villa (actually, the Palazzo Braschi, in Rome) for a holiday, along with the son of one of the women. The newly awakened corpses waste little time in attacking these seven, who are then forced into a siege situation at the villa, along with the residence’s maid and butler. And that’s pretty much it; on with the blood and guts and mayhem…
Writing about Burial Ground in his invaluable Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide, Glenn Kay tells us that it is “among the toughest Italian zombie flicks to sit through,” and that “there isn’t one iota of suspense or terror, and you won’t care about or like any of the characters.” And while it’s difficult to argue with Kay, I yet have a feeling that I enjoyed the film slightly more than he did. Yes, the picture surely has been made for those who do not esteem such elements of the filmmaking craft as character development, logic, explanations, etc. Night of the Living Dead had a radioactive satellite as a rationale for its zombie plague; this film offers no rationale whatsoever! The viewer, likewise, never learns why or how the zombies cause the villa’s lightbulbs to explode, or, for that matter, why the zombies look like half-decomposed cadavers, instead of the skeletons that Etruscans lying in the ground for 2,000+ years would be expected to resemble. And yet, the film still has some definite assets to offer, I feel. For one thing, it is just remarkable how many different types of zombie masks and makeup jobs the film dishes out; Mauro Gavazzi and Rosario Prestopino have done a wonderful job, respectively, in the makeup and masks departments.
While screenwriter Piero Regnoli’s script is surely nothing to rave about (especially when compared to the work he handed in for 1956’s I Vampiri), at least he does keep things lively and moving, while director Andrea Bianchi (who had previously impressed me with his work on that sleaziest of gialli, the 1975 Edwige Fenech vehicle Strip Nude for Your Killer) manages to provide more than a few clever shocks. The largely electronic musical score by Elsio Mancuso complements the already freaky mood nicely, and the gorehounds in the audience will be happy to learn that the body count in Burial Ground — among the living AND the living dead — is extremely high. Among the film’s various instances of pleasing grossness are the sight of wriggling maggots in many of the zombies’ faces; bloody disembowelments and gut-munching sequences that make the one in Romero’s 1968 film seem quite tame; zombie immolation; zombie heads being blown off; zombies being speared and gushing some kind of muddy goop; and on and on.
And although Kay has claimed that the film is devoid of suspense, there are at least two sequences that this viewer found somewhat nerve shredding. In the first, one of the women is held immobile in a bear trap while one ugly zombie advances on her. And in the second, the maid has her hand impaled on a windowsill while a scythe-wielding zombie slowly climbs up a wall to slice off her head. (Oddly, the zombies are able to use tools, carry weapons, and even unite to use a battering ram!) And then there’s the extremely strange matter of that young kid played by Peter Bark, a 25-year-old actor who, because of his dwarfism, resembled a boy half his age. Italian law prohibited youths from appearing in such violent and sexual fare (I guess I didn’t mention that Burial Ground has a fair amount of nudity and sexual content); thus, the use of someone like Bark. He makes for a very weird “young” character (“one of the creepiest, oddest-looking kids ever captured on film,” says Kay), with a marked Oedipus complex for his mother (Mariangela Giordano, the only “name” in the cast). And, in the film’s most notorious sequence, his mom learns an invaluable life lesson the hard way: If your young son ever becomes a zombie, do NOT, out of pity, invite him to suckle at your breast!
The bottom line: Although Kay has given Burial Ground his lowest rating, this viewer found it to be an acceptable, simpleminded entertainment. The film can be seen today via an excellent print on a Media Blasters’ Shriek Show DVD, which comes with many fine extras, including modern-day interviews with the very likable producer, Gabriele Cristani, as well as Mariangela herself, who, remarkably, looks much the same as she did some 25 years ago. As does her Evelyn character in the film, during her interview, Mariangela manages to (you should pardon the expression) get quite a bit off her chest…