Horror of the Zombies / Ship of Zombies / The Ghost Galleon / Ghost Ships of the Blind Dead / Horror of the Evil Dead / El Buque Maldito (1974/1976) **
Oh, look— a Gen-X internet B-movie critic is about to bring up “Night Flight.” What a surprise! Don’t worry, though. I know how thoroughly everyone else in my business has already covered that ground, so we’ll just make a quick stopover there now. Besides, the truth is, I was a little too young to get full value from watching “Night Flight” during most of its run, and I didn’t make a habit of doing so. Mostly, I was just in it for the Devo videos, which obsessed me for some reason when I was a child. Occasionally, though, something would come on that left a deep impression, and one of those things was Horror of the Zombies (which “Night Flight” aired under the title Ship of Zombies). The third and admittedly the worst of Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead films, Horror of the Zombies was my introduction to the series, and it was so unlike anything else I’d ever seen that the part of my pre-teen brain that handled cinema appreciation blew a fuse on it. I knew I had to see more of whatever the hell that just was, but I had no idea how I’d even start to look for it. The local video rental shops came to my rescue, though, because the mere recognition that I was seeking ways to wander off the map led me to give closer consideration to titles I’d never heard of, and there were plenty of those on the shelves at Paul’s Video, Blair’s Video, and Metro Video. In time, I did indeed find stuff that was akin to Horror of the Zombies— including eventually the other installments in the Blind Dead cycle (although I’m going to save that anecdote for another time). No doubt as a consequence of all that, I have a somewhat more favorable view of Horror of the Zombies than do most Eurohorror fans. I see its faults clearly enough, to be sure, but they don’t bother me as much as they probably should. This movie may not be an old friend, exactly, but it does hold a place for me analogous to the much worldlier and more sophisticated kid we all meet one summer who introduces us to things we might never have found on our own.
You don’t have to watch modeling agency boss Lillian (Maria Perschy, from The Hunchback of the Morgue and The House of Psychotic Women) in action for long in order to realize that she’s kind of a bitch. And if you watch a little longer anyway, you’ll further observe that she’s kind of a shady bitch. As soon as Lillian has finished bullying the last bunch of models through the last photo shoot of the day, another of her employees, a tough-looking blonde called Noemi (Barbara Rey, of When the Screaming Stops and Night of the Sorcerers), accosts her demanding to know what’s become of her roommate and lover, Kathy. The reason why Noemi thinks Lillian would know that is because she overhead the missing girl— who is yet another of Lillian’s models— talking on the phone with her right before she disappeared. Lillian tries to fob Noemi off with a shifting succession of obviously bogus explanations, accomplishing nothing but to remove all possible doubt that she knows exactly what’s going on, and is most likely directly involved in it. Noemi threatens to go to the police, at which point Lillian relents, telling her to be at Pier 3 at 7:00 that evening. Evidently it will be easier to show her than to tell her.
Lillian, the sneaky thing, goes to the pier at 6:00, plainly intending dirty pool of some kind. She’s therefore chagrined to find that Noemi got there even earlier, anticipating just such a trick. Defeated, Lillian introduces Noemi to sporting goods magnate Howard Tucker (Jack Taylor, of Rest in Pieces and Nightmares Come at Night), her partner in orchestrating Kathy’s vanishing act. Turns out it’s all a stupid publicity stunt to boost the introduction of Tucker’s latest product line. HT Sports is looking to break into the pleasure boating business, and the new HT Cruiser motor launch is ready to enter mass production. To demonstrate the range and ruggedness of the little vessel, Tucker wanted to have two beautiful bikini girls “rescued” at sea after wandering “off course” in the HT Cruiser prototype, and he hired Kathy (Blanca Estrada, from Mystery on Monster Island and Kilma, Queen of the Amazons) and a second model named Lorena (Margarita Merino) to pose as the bimbo navigators. They’re adrift right now on one of the busier transatlantic shipping routes, and Tucker assures Noemi that no harm will come to them. She doesn’t believe a word at first. Still, she won’t be going to the cops, because for that, she’d have to get by Howard’s brawny henchman, Sergio (Manuel de Blas, from Orgy of the Vampires and Slugs). In any case, Noemi soon learns that Tucker is on the up-and-up, for Kathy and Lorena call in for a progress update not long after Sergio makes it clear that she’ll be sticking around until Howard says otherwise. The girls’ report is troubling, however. Kathy says they’ve been enveloped by a dense fog bank (Howard picked the site for the stunt precisely because conditions like fog were virtually unknown there), and further mentions a sharp upsurge in temperature, as if they’d been magically transported to some tropical sea. That isn’t the half of it, either. A decaying and seemingly unmanned Renaissance-era galleon comes looming out of the mist, and glancingly collides with the HT Cruiser. Tough though the little boat’s hull may be, it wasn’t designed to stand up to that! Taking on water and enervated by the hot damp of the fog bank, the models seek surer shelter aboard the ghost ship.
They don’t do so at once or together, however. Lorena is the first to abandon the HT Cruiser, leaving Kathy to drowse in tropical torpor alone aboard Tucker’s prototype. She comes to a bad end that we don’t get to see soon thereafter. Lorena’s screams wake Kathy, but only momentarily. The latter girl comes fully awake only some hours later, and follows her ill-fated companion into the very same trap. The galleon may have no crew, but that doesn’t mean there’s no one aboard. Down in the cargo hold are a multitude of coffin-sized crates, each housing an undead Knight Templar, and as soon as Kathy goes below decks to search for Lorena, the Blind Dead emerge from their berths to kill her and feast on her blood.
Howard, Sergio, Lillian, and Noemi know nothing of that, of course, but just the same, it’s becoming obvious that this operation will soon be attracting the kind of publicity that Tucker doesn’t want. With that in mind, he rejects calling in the coast guard, and organizes his own private sector rescue mission instead; Lillian comes along because she’s in this up to her neck by now, and Noemi isn’t given any choice in the matter. Tucker isn’t an idiot, though. He knows he needs some manner of expert assistance if he’s going to find the endangered models in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in a fog bank that shouldn’t be able to exist. Consequently, he pays a visit to Professor Grüber (Carlos Lemos, from The Sweet Sound of Death and The Edge of Fear), an oceanographer or maritime meteorologist or some such thing. Grüber initially dismisses the whole business— his office had a weather research ship in the area at the time, and its captain would have reported anything as weird as an anomalous fog bank— but he changes his tune when Lillian mentions the galleon. This isn’t the first the professor has heard of a phantom galleon in those latitudes, you see, and sightings of the mysterious vessel correlate eerily well with shipwrecks and disappearances at sea. Grüber may have no interest in doing the coast guard’s job in order to keep some damnfool businessman out of richly deserved trouble, but a chance to go chasing a modern-day Flying Dutchman is another matter. Unfortunately for all concerned, the results of this latest intrusion into the Templars’ territory more closely resemble Tombs of the Blind Dead than Return of the Blind Dead.
The ghost galleon itself is both this movie’s blessing and its curse. On the upside, it gives Horror of the Zombies a memorable and compelling setting, one arguably even more distinctive than the first film’s haunted abbey. But at the same time, confining the action to a few hundred gross tons of old-timey sailing ship severely limits the story possibilities. Horror of the Zombies spends way too much of its time running variations on a pattern in which one of the characters will go wandering off through the ship on his or her own, find the entrance to the hold, and rouse the Templars exactly long enough for them to kill and exsanguinate the intruder. Playing out that routine once was probably obligatory, but it would also have been sufficient. Another downside to putting the Blind Dead on this ship in particular is that it demands an explanation for what a bunch of undead Knights Templar are doing cruising around on a vessel launched some 200 years after their execution. Amando de Ossorio takes the trouble to give us one, but it won’t stand up to more than the mildest scrutiny. (The real explanation, I’m sure, is that he didn’t feel like writing a whole scene to bring the audience up to speed on what a carrack was, when just about everyone would recognize the term galleon well enough.)
Even flimsier is the justification offered for the galleon’s phantasmal character despite its seemingly obvious physical existence. Inexplicably, de Ossorio settled on a sci-fi explanation involving a pocket-size parallel universe— the elucidation of which is Professor Grüber’s true function in the cast. It was a bad idea on several levels. For one thing, Grüber just sounds like a loon when the first words out of his mouth upon boarding the ghost ship are an announcement that he and his fellows have entered another dimension. For another, Tucker’s inevitable (and initially quite sensible) refusal to believe the professor becomes a source of bullshit conflict filling time in between Templar uprisings. But most of all, invoking pocket dimensions and whatnot is just plain extraneous in a movie that already has black magic and Satanism to account for its violations of normal reality. This is one of those times when “a wizard did it” is simply the better answer.
None of that stuff is what really irks most viewers— me included— about Horror of the Zombies, however. No, the infuriating thing here is the incorrigible, bone-deep stupidity of all the living characters. Everything any of these people do, at every step of the way, is an obviously terrible idea. Tucker’s publicity stunt? Dumb. Kathy and Lorena’s acquiescence to the scheme, whatever their compensation? Dumb. Lillian’s attempt to conceal Kathy’s participation in Tucker’s plan from Noemi? Dumb. Tucker and Sergio’s efforts to strong-arm Noemi when she shows up threatening to call the police? So, so dumb! And that’s all before anybody sets foot on the ghost galleon’s decks! It’s a real challenge to become invested in a story when all of the participants insist upon acting like this.
Even so, Horror of the Zombies is not without merit, above and beyond my aforementioned personal reasons for viewing it fondly. The setting is wonderfully atmospheric, and gets under your skin even when nothing much is happening. De Ossorio remains one of the few Euroschlock directors who can consistently make a film work at such a lugubrious pace, even if Horror of the Zombies is noticeably creakier than its predecessors in that regard. But most of all, the Blind Dead are as creepy as ever. Indeed, some might even find them a little bit more so in this installment, since Horror of the Zombies wastes no time recapping their origins. This time around, we never see the human Knights Templar at all, and the very existence of the zombie knights is allowed to stand as an unaccounted-for affront against reason.