Laserblast: Blind Dead Box Set, Robots

For family-oriented fantasy fans, this week's new high-profile home video release is ROBOTS, wihch hits store shelves for the first time today; there is also a new two-disc DVD of THE INCREDIBLES (which is also a much better movie). But today's really exciting DVD news concerns horror fans: the five-disc box set release of Amando De Ossorio's "Blind Dead Tetralogy."

The four "Blind Dead" are basically '70s European zombie movies, made in the wake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but with their own unique twist: the walking dead are members of the Knights Templar who were executed for practising black magic, and when they come back from the grave, they cannot see. (The reason for this changes from film to film: either their eyes were burned out by a toch-wielding mob, or they were pecked out by birds while their bodies hung on the gallows.) All four films are worth seeing, but the first two pretty much exhaust the possibilities, leaving the second pair to rehash familiar material in new settings.

TOMB OF THE BLIND DEAD introduces us to the Templars. The film is classic Eurotrash horror cinema: almost plotless, the story serves just as an excuse to serve up the horror, and gratuitous exploitation element are thrown in to keep us from getting bored in between the zombie scenes (there's a lesbian flashback in the first act and a rape in the last act). A couple on vacation meets an old girlfriend (who used to be the woman's lover) and take a train ride; fleeing from the awkward situation, the girlfriend takes refuge in a castle where the Templars rise from the grave and kill her. Her friends try to find out what happened, rather unwisely enlisting the help of a local criminal (who wants to clear himself from being blamed for the death), and they too run afoul of the Templars. The sole survivor runs for the train tracks, where a foolish young assistant engineer stops the train agains his older superior's orders. In one of the most incredibly botched rescue attempts in screen history, this allows the Templars to climb on board and kill all the passengers.

This film was recut during its intial release in drive-in theatres (and later on home video). The flashback showing the history of the Templars (including their brutal, ritual sacrifice of a half-naked woman) was moved was used as a prologue at the beginning of the film, and the brief glimpses of carnage inside the train at the end were removed (including a truly shocking moment when a young child cries in fear as his parents' blood drips on his face!) The DVD includes English and Spanis languages, an alternate opening sequence, a theatrical trailer, and a gallery of posters and stills.

RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD is probably the Templars' finest hour. This time the setting is a small island town where the protagonist is an expert in pyrotechnics, who has come to supply fireworks for an annual celebration: the anniversary of the day the townsfolks burned the Templars! Perhaps learning a lesson from the re-editing that befell the first film, Ossorio here opens with a prologue showing the Templars being killed by a mob of angry villagers. When the Templars brag they will come back from hell to seek revenge, one of the villagers yells, "Try to find your way back without eyes!" -- and plunge a torch into his face! Thanks to the island setting, the story is more focused; there is none of the back-and-forth train-riding that made TOMB seem so rambling at times. There is no real depth to the characters, but they are painted in effectively broad brushstrokes that generate some real tension when the group barricades itself into a church near the end. The highlight has to be the wicked mayor, who talks a child into acting as an unwitting decoy, urging her to wander out into the street unprotected, so that the mayor can make his getaway (needless to say, he gets what he deserves).

As you can tell from the title, this is probably where Sam Raimi got the idea for this EVIL DEAD films. RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD also includes a brief shot of a rotting, ghostly horse (an image that would appear in Raimi's ARMY OF DARKNESS). The DVD features English and Spanish language, a theatrical trailer, and a gallery of posters and stills.

THE GHOST GALLEON, in an effort to do something new, relocates the Templars on board a Flying Dutchman-type ship that appears mysteriously out of the fog. Unaware, our heroes are forced to take refuge aboard the ghostly vessel, which results in some creepy maritime atmosphere and a nicely claustrophic feel -- there's nowhere to flee when the Templars rise! Unfortunately, the setting deprives the film of one of the series' signature elements: the sight of the cadaverous blind knights riding their horses in slow-motion across the country side. And the miniatures at the end, when the ship burns, are laughably obvious: the "ship" is obviously a toy model, and the "raging fires" strongly resemble the flame of a matchstick. The effect is made even more ludicrous by the use of sound effects for the fire: the disparity between what we're seeing and what we're hearing only underlines the fakery of the visuals. The DVD also includes materials from the U.S. advertising campaign (where the film was re-titled HORROR OF THE ZOMBIES): a theatrical trailer, a TV spot, and radio splots; plus, there is a poster & stills gallery.

NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS returns the Templars to land, but there is almost a touch of continuity with its predecessor: GHOST GALLEON ended with the Templars pursuing the heroes on shore after their ship sank; SEAGULLS shows the Templars ensconced near a seaside town, as if they had taken up residence somewhere near where they made landfall in the previous film. Unfortunately, the story is pretty much just a rehash of what came before: another outsider (this time a doctor instead of a pyrotechnician) comes to town and learns the history of the Templars that are haunting the area. The innovations this time is that the local citizens try to appease the Templars by sacrificing virgins to them, and the Templars seem to have taken up worshipping a sea god: they rip their sacrificial victims' hearts out and leave them where the local crabs can crawl all over them. The DVD includes a theatrical trailer and a poster-and-stills gallery.

The box set's fifth disc includes several bonus features: "The Last Templar," a documentary on Amando de Ossorio; "Unearthing the Blind Death," an interview with Ossorio; "Farewell to Spain's Knight of Horror, a DVD-ROM feature; and "Knights of Terror," a collectable 40 page book.

In the end, the Blind Dead films are not classics. They're a little too exploitative and a little bit too clumsy in their exposition scenes. But they are great cult films, and the gimmick of a blind monster is truly effective. The Templars belong in the category of "slow monsters" (like the Blob and the older version of the Mummy). In films like these, you always wonder why the human characters are unable to outrun their pursuer; the Blind Dead films at last have an answer: the human needs to tiptoe very quietly in order to avoid being heard; the minute they try to run, the Templars jump aboard their charging horses and swoop down on them. The films were considered quite gory at the time and suffered re-editing when distributed in America; although they seem tame by today's standards, the horror can still pack an effective punch.

I should perhaps note, just for the sake of historical accuracy, that the portrait of the Templars as blood-thirsty Satanists is probably erroneous. The real-life Templars were an order charged with protecting the routes to the Holy Land after the crusades. After hundreds of years, the members of the organization were indeed burned as heretics, but there is little reason to think they were actually guilty of witchcraft.

COMPUTER-ANIMATED FANTASIES

Two DVDs of popular computer-animated fantasies are hitting store shelves today.

ROBOTS is no match for TOY STORY, but it's passable entertainment for undiscriminating family viewers. The DVD includes two audio commentaries; two animated short subjects; deleted scenes with option director's commentary; a featurette; a Blue Man Group music video; and some interactive features and games.

THE INCREDIBLES has been out on DVD for a while, but now Disney is pumping more onto the shelves. On this two-disc collector's edition (which is available in widescreen and fullscreen versions) you get: two audio commentaries (one by the writer-director and the producer, one by the animators); "Incredible Blunders" bloopers and outtakes; deleted scenes, including an alternate opening; seven behind-the-scenes featurettes; a Pixar short called "Boundin'" with optional audio commentary; top secret NSA files on the "Supers"; "Mr. Incredible & Pals" cartoon with optional commentary by Frozone and Mr. Incredible; "Vowellet," an essay by vocal talent Sarah Vowell (Violet); and in introduction by writer-director Brad Bird.

ALSO THIS WEEK

Several other titles of greater or lesser interest to fantasy, sci-fi, and horror fans are coming out this week on DVD: STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE, the Complete Third Season; CREATURE COMFORTS, the Complete First season (this is Ardman Animation's follow-up to director Nick Park's Oscar-winning short subject, about animals discussing their life in the zoo); HENRY PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, 20th Anniversary Edition; and DARK SHADOWS, Collection 20.