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Vengeance of the Zombies Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 17, 2008

    Vengeance of the Zombies Review
    Trashy Paul Naschy (real name Jacinto Molina) has almost single-handedly clawed a blood-spattered niche into the horror genre, churning out his home-grown Spanish equivalents to what Hammer had been doing for a good couple of decades already (and was, by the time he started, on a serious decline) and doing his bit to get Euro-shockers on the same map that Dario Argento was plunging daggers into. But whereas Argento, at least back then, was producing very sophisticated psycho-dramas and supernatural spectaculars, Naschy was courting the equivalent of the American drive-in crowd with hokey monster-masks, splashy, but really rather tame gore, and copious nudity. Nevertheless, in an inspired turn, Naschy created a character that would endure - at least in low-budget, cult-film circles - almost as many adventures as Sherlock Holmes. His anguished, forever cursed Waldamar Danninsky was his answer to Lon Chaney Jnr's Larry Talbot, the long-suffering lycanthrope from Universal's foggy series of chillers. But Naschy's hirsute-hero, who would keep on dying and then returning again, was also something of a romantic hero, too. His noble human side was tortured by his murderous lunar activities and despite a ripe number of slayings of innocents, his character was often vindicated by taking on some greater evil and ultimately vanquishing it. Such is the iconic status of Naschy's creation - despite his appearing in a great many other horror films as different creatures of the night - that there are even comic-book adaptations, fan-sites, detailed sculptures and action figures of the stocky guy's horrific alter-ego.

    The series caught on in the US where Naschy became quite a celebrated icon of sleazy, low-rent gothic shocks. But in the UK, he actually achieved a fair degree of notoriety since early entries in the series inexplicably became caught up in the whole “Video Nasties” farrago during the first half of the eighties. With their titles in the tabloid headlines and on the DPP hit-list of banned films, Naschy's noble wolfman's exploits became nectar for underage gore-fiends who would, inevitably, be disappointed when they finally laid their mitts on scratchy copies of The Werewolf's Shadow or The Werewolf And The Yeti on VHS or Beta. That disappointment can only continue now with a couple of poor instalments arriving on Blu-ray.

    This particular entry in the long-running franchise is definitely one of the better ones, though. But, ahem, that isn't saying much. Boasting budget no bigger than my six year old son's pocket money, but managing to make the most of some great locations and an atmosphere that almost becomes moody and surreal, Night Of The Werewolf, sees Daninsky executed alongside the infamous, blood-bathing Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Julia Saly) in the overly portentous prologue depicting some curiously dislocated Spanish Inquisition. But, after a couple of hundred years, some incredibly gorgeous and curvaceous archaeologists-cum-myth-busters make the perilous journey into the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania (erm, somewhere just outside Madrid, in actual fact) and foolishly unearth the remains of Bathory who is, we are led to believe, evil incarnate and if she can get Daninsky, her reluctant former aid, on her side again, then she can cover he world in a veil of shadow ... or something equally sinister. In a complete rip-off of the terrific opening to Universal's Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (reviewed separately), two gold-diggers plunder the lycanthrope's tomb, removing the silver dagger/crucifix combo that has imprisoned him in deathly slumber. Oops. And, naturally, they choose to commit their act of desecration on a night lit by a full moon. Double oops! No surprises then that El Hairy Hombre reawakens to find lunch within easy talon-groping distance and soon the time-honoured cycle kicks-in with photo-dissolve transformations, more glued-on yak-hair then is strictly necessary considering the profuse beard that Naschy is already sporting, and mucho creeping about the Castilian castle ruins that are doubling for some decrepit Eastern European haunt adorned with portraits of Vlad The Impaler.

    Along the way, we witness dancing lights that are supposed to be harbingers of doom (but look like errors in the encoding process to me), an upside-down throat cutting ritual over Bathory's remains pilfered from Hammer's Dracula: Prince Of Darkness, a ghastly bulked-up skeleton bodyguard who looks like a holdover from Spain's own Blind Dead series and plenty of soft-focus, big-bosomed clinches. It sure isn't original and it never really approaches anything that could be termed exciting with the werewolf just given to lurching around the dry countryside and the vamps merely leering at the camera with outstretched arms. Naschy, who directed this one, has absolutely no idea how to construct a coherent narrative, or how to bring life to a decent set-piece. He loves his wolfman, though, and there's no mistaking that. And here, at least, he reveals some panache, with some actually skin-tingling instances of blood-mad, feral eyes and a couple of nice shots of his thick paws curling around window-frames or appearing over the edge of something before we actually see the Daninsky beast. I'm not even going to complain about the old-school makeup for his monster. I've talked at length about the werewolf in movies, as seen in my on-off series entitled Full Moon Frenzy (which I'll get back to one day!), and I have to say that there is definitely something altogether creepier about a real-life actor in the makeup - even without the flesh-contorting fx from the likes of Rick Baker or Rob Bottin - that means even the likes of the diminutive, but hefty, Paul Naschy can look quite frightening when peering out from beneath the glued-on thatch and the Halloween fangs. It is even quite pleasant to view such a transformation as one man just rolling about on the floor and screaming in mock-agony when you consider that at the same as this film was released, the world was about to behold An American Werewolf In London and The Howling. By comparison, Naschy's old stalwart of Waldamar Daninsky seems positively quaint and tame ... but I can find something of cosy old nostalgia in his taloned strangleholds and single-bite kills. His cue was Lon Chaney Jnr. (soon to be totally re-invoked by Benecio Del Toro in the hugely anticipated - by me, at least - remake of The Wolf Man) and for his continued approach to that mist-enshrouded template, Naschy gets my admiration, if for nothing else.

    For as well as emulating the old snarl and pounce antics of Universal's lycanthropes, he also adheres to their surprising lack of on-screen carnage. Night Of The Werewolf gives Daninsky the opportunity for quite a few kills, but gore-fans should take note that they are practically bloodless, despite this version being uncut. The violence is pantomimic, with people flung about and simply manhandled to the ground for an off-screen chomp. Only when Bathory and her vampirised cohorts start their campaign of lackadaisical terror, does any claret begin to fly. The afore-mentioned ritual throat-slashing features a gallon of the stuff, but since this is merely poured from an out-of-frame bucket onto Bathory's face, there is little to get either excited or squeamish about. In fact, it is utterly bewildering how this series of movies got such a notorious name in the UK since they are, when all said and done, pretty darn harmless.

    But, let's give Naschy some credit where we can find it. There are two great moments of proud Daninsky mayhem that raise the bar to just over Hobbit height. During one protracted transformation we keep seeing a rather large and rather too obvious stained-glass window that you just know is going to go crash!. And, lo and behold, doesn't old fang-face take a pretty meaty lunge right through it with absolute gusto once his metamorphosis is complete? Later on, during a confrontation down in the crypt, Bathory's super-powered Hell-bitch sends a levitating coffin-lid at him which a gnashing-Naschy swats from the air into a thousand splinters with his wicked claws. Groovy. But it's funny how often his howling anti-hero ends up battling lethal ladies in his series of adventures, something that Hugh Jackman's Wolverine seemed to be emulating in the first two X-Men features. Thus, despite some extremely attractive young ladies prancing about the proceedings, Night Of The Werewolf has little to get the juices flowing.

    The partner-in-blood to Night Of The Werewolf is Naschy's 1972 hodge-podge occult/giallo thriller-chiller Vengeance Of The Zombies. This one, which he wrote, seems to throw everything into the mix in order to create incident, violence and titillation. Surreal, chaotic and often hilarious - check out Naschy as the Devil, complete with horns and literally a goatee-beard - this is also quite camp and silly. The plot is really irrelevant. Someone in a mask is committing serial murders, an incredibly phoney Scotland Yard is baffled, a real chicken gets its head cut off, victims rise up again as bizarrely smiling zombies and the whole shindig degenerates into a horribly garish mishmash of voodoo, mystical Indian rites and brotherly possession. The effects - including throat-wounds, burned-faces and some pitchfork action - are pretty dire even by Naschy's standards and the film rattles along without rhyme or reason. Just one glance at the ingredients listed above makes the whole thing sound much more interesting than it really is, but you still have to hand it to the determined Spanish schlock-meister for heaving up some unashamed avant-garde delinquency with such aplomb. Too bad that the film is accompanied by a score so terrible it would shame a seventies porn-fest and acting that is, sadly, no better. If Naschy was besotted by Universal's and Hammer's horror output, this appeared to be his take on the Italian stalk 'n' slash genre instigated by Mario Bava and, at around the time he made it, the devastating arrival on the circuit of Dario Argento. It is just a shame that he sought to overload the plot with so much other gruesome, but offbeat chicanery, stamping his own irascible but inept mark all over it.

    Yet, whilst Night Of The Werewolf is the dubious main attraction of this 2-disc package, jaded lovers of kitsch, ramshackle horror should still get a kick out of Vengeance Of The Zombies. But it is doubtful that Naschy will actually garner many new fans with the release of these two movies on BD. His fan-base, however, is sure to adore these new versions.

    It is also worth noting that the English dubbed versions of these films feature some really Kuh-razy interpretations of the original dialogue. One very early scene in Night Of The Werewolf that is centred around a swimming pool contains a couple of wildly off-the-cuff obscenities that are not quite the same in the subtitles.

    But, unless you are a die-hard fan of Paul Naschy, there is little exhibited here to entertain in anything more than a drunken, slap-a-daft-disc-on hoot.