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Burial Ground/Second Review

From The Grindhouse Cinema Database

< Burial Ground

The stars of Nights of Terror are the zombies of course, and these guys are organized. Categorically falling somewhere between the slow, stumbling corpses of George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, and the hyper undead running around with machine guns in City Of The Living Dead; director Andrea Bianchi’s zombies line-up in a commendably orderly fashion, gathering garden tools to tear down shutters and doors, even using a wood pole for a battering ram - these zombies know the value of teamwork when hunting the living.

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Uttering "It's incredible, incredible, yet it's true - it must be......" after examining ancient symbols carved into a stone tablet, we know that Professor Ayers has discovered something incredible. Excitedly, the professor returns to what resembles an underground crypt beneath the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheater and is summarily eaten alive by a group of zombies no doubt irritated with the professor’s incessant hammering onto the walls of their home. Startled by a zombie attacker, Professor Ayres confusedly blurts out, "No, no stand back, I'm your friend!" dialogue providing the first example of laughably bad dubbing plaguing the entire movie.

Next morning, three cars wind their way across a country road while upbeat lounge music driven by saxophone and piano introduce the opening credits. Musicians Elsio Mancuso and Burt Rexton create an effectively scary synth composition, although the opening theme sounds suspiciously like a library track purchased for the film due to its noticeably different orchestration.

Emerging from the automobiles are two couples, model Janet and her boyfriend/photographer Mark (Karin Well and Gianluigi Chirizzi) and Leslie (Antonella Antinori) and her beau James (Simone Mattioli); all spending time at the incredible estate of Nicholas (Claudio Zuccet), his wife Evelyn (Mariangela Giordano) , and their young son “Scary Michael,” actor Pietro Barzocchini (Peter Bark in the credits). Pietro is of small stature, chosen to play the role of a child due to later scenes in the movie prohibiting performance by an adolescent. Substituting an older actor for a child makes for a very weird character; a boy appearing to be in his late teens with a long, slender face and large piercing eyes acting as though he were seven.

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Mariangela Giordano gets special billing in the credits, she being sort of a grande dame of low-budget cinema; reliable for dropping her clothes and dying in horrible ways during a long career beginning with costume dramas and westerns in the late fifties. During the seventies Mariangela undressed for a series of sex comedies like Lusty Wives of Canterbury, and eventually befriended the horror and giallo genres during the 80’s when appearing in a series of movies including Malabimba (also directed by Andrea Bianchi), Giallo a Venezia, and Patrick Still Lives.

Why Professor Ayres is there at the estate discovering amazing things before anyone else arrives is never explained, but the location is a fabulous site for a little archaeological excavation. Known locally as the Villa Parisi near Rome, Nights of Terror inherits an air of sophistication by default given its fancy location; sumptuously appointed grounds and interiors, rooms decorated floor to ceiling with intricately painted murals and plaster-work adds a touch of class to Bianchi’s zombies. Built in the 1600’s, the villa has played host to numerous genre movies, including an entry in the series of French spy films OSS 117, Double Agent with a young Rosalba Neri, Aristide Massaccesi’s Death Smiles on a Murderer, and the previously mentioned Patrick Still Lives.

After Bianchi gets his main characters all together, his zombies attack. For the rest of the running time viewers follow the survivors and witness their slow demise after numerous zombie encounters. Early on, the cast realizes that the only way to kill a zombie is to blow their heads off, a method illustrated by a character brandishing a shotgun yelling, "They can only be killed by blowing their heads off" while several slow-motion close-ups of zombies getting their heads blown off drives the point home.

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Some of Bianchi’s zombies rise from the earth, decorated with maggots or squirming earth worms falling from decayed faces ala director Lucio Fulci’s Zombie from 1979. Understandably, Fulci’s fledgling production acted as the blue-print for a successful run of Italian zombie movies after Zombie created box-office gold in 1979.

Whether an odd homage to Fulci, or blatant rip-off, Bianchi chose to include an awfully close copy of a scene first presented in Zombie. Antonella Antinori is grabbed by the hair through a shattered second story window by a zombie who scaled the home’s outer ledge. As the ghoul pulls Leslie forwards, glass window shards just miss piercing her eye, and leave a bloody slice across the side of her face. In a moment of unintentional comedy, the zombie suddenly loses its grip on Leslie’s hair and plummets backwards to the ground, a shot of the zombie waving its outstretched arms in quick circles to counteract the fall is regrettably not included. Fulci’s original scene opted for a close-up of a shard of wood piercing the eye of its hapless victim when she’s pulled by the hair through a broken window by an attacking zombie.

Zombie masks created so “one-size fits all” leaves larger actors with their lips protruding from the darkened mouths and teeth of obviously ill-fitting latex masks. Some zombies appear with strands of hair and loose eyeballs plugged into what appears to be handfuls of clay haphazardly slapped to their faces and contoured into odd shapes. Surprisingly, these makeup short-comings do not detract from the overall effectiveness of the rotted undead – what little money available for the zombie makeup was used wisely, if not altogether convincingly.

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Scripting is sometimes confused and probably evolved as filming commenced; initially, viewers are led to believe that Janet and Mark are a couple after they discuss how much they’ve looked forwards to spending the weekend with each other, while in an adjacent room James and Leslie make love. However, once the couples are together and fleeing the zombies, James calls Janet his wife and shows protective affection towards her. This confusing dialogue switches James’ role of husband to a different character, explained only if the two men were alternately cheating on each other’s women - an interesting complication that the film doesn’t have time for.

Nights of Terror creates its own off-kilter reality where characters and events that don’t make sense stubbornly continue until they all become amusingly normal. Characters get snapped in bear traps, engage in impromptu indoor pistol shooting lessons, carry candles where seconds earlier it was broad daylight or quickly recover from debilitating injury.

House maid Kathleen demurely offers drinks from a tray to the others while they frantically run around boarding up windows and doors, before venturing upstairs to see if any intruders have entered the second floor. While looking from a window, Kathleen’s hand is pinned to the wooden casement by a deftly thrown railroad spike hurled by a zombie below!? Now pinned to the window, a second zombie reaches up to Kathleen’s head with a scythe, executing one of the slowest beheadings ever committed to film. Just like the proverbial hot knife through butter, the scythe’s long blade is pulled slowly across the back of Kathleen’s neck, slicing her head clean off so it falls into the eager hands of several hungry zombies waiting below.

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Flesh-eating ghouls may be the stars of the show, but creepy Michael comes close to stealing the show. Evelyn protects her son from invading zombies by demonstrating her beheading abilities with a machete, she then takes Michael into her arms to comfort him; Michael starts fondling her breast while working his other hand beneath her skirt!! Now it’s clear why they couldn’t get a child to play the child.… Evelyn is shocked by Michael’s amorous approaches and lashes out with a slap to his face, something the audience has undeniably been wanting to do the entire movie.

Much later Michael returns, putting the piece de resistance to Andrea Bianchi’s zombie tale after almost everyone else succumbs to the zombies and their irrepressible appetite. Mark, Evelyn and Leslie find themselves trapped in a monastery with zombie monks thwarting their attempts to escape. Suddenly Michael appears, creepier than usual, obviously recruited into the ranks of the living dead. Mommy Evelyn, overcome with joy because her strange little boy is alive, graciously takes Michael into her arms and allows him to pop her breast into his mouth while she coos, “Oh go ahead darling, just like when you were a baby. You used to love it so..." Suddenly the horrible suckling turns into a toothsome smorgasbord as little Michael tears away a slab of tit shown bloodily clenched between his teeth!

As though acquiescing to the futility of trying to top a boob eating zombie boy, the film slowly deflates to its conclusion. Leslie and Mark battle a final group of zombies, the camera panning away from a promising table-saw death as Mark’s head is forced in front of its whirring saw blade to focus instead on Leslie and the zombies closing in on her. Suddenly a quote from something called the “Profecy of the Black Spider” appears superimposed on screen to end the movie: “The earth shall tremble….the earth shall open…they shall come among the living as messengers of death and there shall be nights of terror…..”

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Nights of Terror keeps it simple, a plot providing just enough information to orient the audience to the whereabouts of the characters as they scramble to survive against an army of the living dead; grisly make-up effects and events punctuating the entire cast’s progress towards inevitable demise. Simplicity is Bianchi’s weapon; he uses his time wisely, jettisoning character development and sub-plots in favor of grisly gut-munching spectacle, which proved to be the only truly necessary ingredient of this living-dead sub-genre soon to explode across movie screens everywhere in the land of tomatoes and garlic.

Reviewed by Nate Miner - 11/3/16

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