In his introduction on this DVD from BCI Eclipse's new Deimos imprint, writer and star Paul Naschy twice describes Vengeance of the Zombies as strange, and...yeah, "una pelicula extraña" is one way to put it.
This 1972 slice of Eurocult, presented for the first time in the U.S. uncut, is described in the DVD's liner notes as a mix of a German krimi and a zombie film. I can't say I'm all that familiar with krimi, but if Vengeance of the Zombie is any indication, it's not too far removed from the Italian giallo. A masked killer on a deranged search for revenge is hunting women throughout England. He doesn't hesitate to jab a knife into his victims' throats, but with each woman he kills, he adds another weapon to his arsenal: the walking undead. These are zombies in the classic sense, animated by voodoo rather than some sort of cannibalistic plague, and their etherial, dreamlike movements owe more to the Templars in the Blind Dead series than the flesh-eaters of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. The plot mixes in the undead, Satanic nightmares, and Indian mysticism with such giallo mainstays as graphic stabbings, a masked and blood-spattered whodunnit, a thirst for vengeance, exposition-riddled exchanges at Scotland Yard, the hapless woman caught in the middle, and the lone gun determined to uncover the truth.
No one's really watching Vengeance of the Zombies for the plot, though. Naschy likened the movie to a drug-induced nightmare in his autobiography, and it's every bit as odd and incoherent as that suggests. This is a movie with a killer who cycles through a series of increasingly bizarre dime store fright masks...with a virtuous Indian guru squaring off against the fire-scarred evil brother who possesses him every once in a while...dueling pitchforks, bloodletting by way of beer can, chicken decapitation, voodoo-induced suicide, brutal murders with various farm implements, shamelessly gratuitous sex scenes, zombified women with beaming smiles...
Sure, that kind of off-the-wall incoherence has its charm, but Vengeance of the Zombies is too scattershot, and its meager budget drags it down a bit. Most of the Spanish horror films I've seen have primarily been shot outside, making use of crumbling tombs and graveyards bathed in moonlight. Vengeance of the Zombies spends most of its time in sparsely decorated sets, and the distractingly cheap production values and off-kilter camera angles keep the movie from ever establishing much of a creepy ambiance. Its zombies are fairly bland as well -- just bluish makeup caked on its perpetually grinning actresses' faces -- but artist Miguel Sese's work on Paul Naschy still holds up particularly well today. The devil is featured only briefly in the movie but is so instantly memorable that he's plastered across the cover art of this DVD, and Kantaka's half-melted face and his missing clumps of hair are even more impressive.
What tension there may have been in Vengeance of the Zombies is defused by the movie's
upbeat, jazzy score. There's something bizarre about seeing a woman awake to the sight of zombified hands inches from her face...darting frantically around her house only to stumble upon the mutilated corpses of her loved ones...all to the tune of an up-tempo lounge act. I don't really get the impression that Vengeance of the Zombies was trying to establish some ominous sense of dread, although I'll also admit to not knowing what the hell it's going for, exactly. Still, a disjointed, chaotic near-miss can be more fun to watch than something bland and conventional, and even if I can't enthusiastically recommend Vengeance of the Zombies as a movie, you'll probably at least find it worth a rental if you've bothered to read this far.
Video: Vengeance of the Zombies was meticulously remastered in high-definition from original negative materials, and the resulting 1.37:1 image looks incredible. Its vivid palette is often striking and is bolstered by robust black levels, and every trace of wear and speckling has been removed. Although some of the expected snags of a lower-budgeted production creep in from time to time -- sporadic softness and inconsistent levels of film grain, not that that's any fault of the remastering -- crispness and clarity are both reasonably strong throughout. The image is smooth enough at times that I wondered if some mild noise reduction had been applied, but if that's the case, it's not overly distracting.
However, as immaculate as the transfer may be, the authoring of this disc doesn't quite live up to those same standards. Some mild compression concerns occasionally rear their blocky, unstable head, particularly in the red drapes and magenta backdrop of the chamber in which Krishna is first introduced. Motion isn't always smooth and fluid, and a couple of particularly jarring instances of ghosting are illustrated below:
These are fairly minor concerns, though, and the overall quality of the presentation more than makes up for that handful of hiccups. Still, considering the lengthy delays surrounding these first two releases from Deimos Entertainment, it's a shame that not all of these problems were ironed out. A very strong, if not quite perfect, first outing from Deimos.
Audio: Vengeance of the Zombies offers soundtracks in both Castillian and English. There are two English dubs, in fact: one
monaural and the other in Dolby Digital 5.1 (448 Kbps), although the multichannel remix is horrifically out of sync. This problem doesn't affect either of the other tracks, though. The Castillian audio has a persistent hiss and suffers from some occasional pops and crackles, but neither of those are terribly distracting, especially considering how surprisingly full-bodied the track is. There's no disguising that this is a film from 1972, but this stereo track maintains a decent presence and sports some particularly punchy bass in its loungy score.
Its kind of goes without saying since its featured soundtrack is in Castillian, but optional English subtitles are also available.
Extras: Paul Naschy offers an ominous introduction to the film (subtitled, naturally), with the remaining extras more archival in nature. Deimos has pieced together an uncut version of Vengeance of the Zombies with a fair amount of nudity for this DVD, but alternate footage from the original Spanish release has also been provided, including the original Spanish credits and a few minutes' worth of fully clothed versions of some of these scenes. The quality's comparable to the feature itself. There are also two still galleries, the first containing fourteen production stills and the other compiling a sprawling selection of posters, lobby cards, brochures, and promotional art from the world over. An English theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.
Vengeance of the Zombies is slickly packaged, with Synapse Films mainstay Wes Benscoter contributing his talents to its slipcase and cover art. Even more impressive are the 3-D animated menus. The disc's eye-catchingly designed liner notes have been penned by Mirek Lipinski, the webmaster behind Latarnia: Fantastique International and The Mark of Naschy. Lipinski touches on the film's origins, defends its much-derided score, points out a few continuity missteps, offers a couple of notes about its release stateside, and speaks at length about both the talent involved and the state of Spanish horror in the early 1970s. The screened artwork on the DVD itself features the same composite art as Lipinski's notes, and oddly enough, the DVD art even reprints the text "liner notes" on it.
Conclusion: Vengeance of the Zombies isn't much of a horror film, but its giallo underpinnings and its persistent strangeness are endearing even if the threadbare production values and clumsy storytelling aren't so much. This is the type of movie I'd traditionally recommend renting first before forking over a credit card, but some stores are pairing Vengeance of the Zombies with Naschy's Night of the Werewolf for a very modest twenty dollars. At that price, you're basically getting Vengeance of the Zombies for free, and for a package this well produced, that's extremely difficult to pass up. Otherwise...? Rent It.