e-mail:Smokey X. Digger
1980, Dir. Andrea Bianchi
I've tried to tackle Burial Ground before, but could never get past the first couple of paragraphs. This has always puzzled me for the film is an easy target; it is horrible in almost every aspect. Despite its complete ineptitude and stupidly basic premise there is something that gives this flick an almost surreal atmosphere, making it stick in the brain stubbornly. Burial Ground is possibly the most basic zombie film of all time spiced up with some gratuitous unappealing sex and the bizarre presence of Peter Bark, who will be discussed in detail further on.
The film opens with the strangely bearded Professor Ayres doing a bit of excavating at an ancient Etruscan burial site. While examining his find, he discovers a "secret" that draws him back to the site. He chips away at a wall which wakes up a couple of crusty, surly zombies who put the bite on him. Four minutes in and we have our first attack. Cut to a driving sequence set to some horrendous lite jazz, after which our seven principals arrive at the estate to meet the Professor. Let's do a headcount: Evelyn, George (who owns the joint), and their freakish son Michael; Janet and Mark, and Leslie and James. They are greeted by the help, Nicholas and Kathleen, and shown to their rooms in which they set about rutting like animals. Unfortunately, these are the last people you’d ever want to see getting intimate with the exception of your parents.
The next morning the couples split up to take in their surroundings which unfortunately for them are just crawling with zombies. Literally, there must have been Etruscans buried in every corner of this place. They must make great fertilizer because they even crawl up from inside concrete flowerboxes. Each couple is interrupted in their diversions by the zoms and scurry back to the estate except for George, who buys it in true gut-ripping fashion. From here on in it's quite simple and quite familiar: people inside, undead outside. Various methods of escape and attack are tried, the number of survivors dwindles, and chaos ensues. There is almost literally no narrative, and I strongly suspect that the dialogue was entirely improvised.
The film is shot in a point-and-click manner and is given to jerky, hesitant pans and zooms a la H.G. Lewis. There’s nothing terribly sophisticated (not that I was expecting anything) and I wouldn't complain if the primitive camerawork had managed to capture anything even remotely frightening. The creeping P.O.V. shot is used repeatedly to little effect, and the potential of the interior setting is left unused. The castle they shot in was full of strange decor, twisting hallways and secret doors: there could've been a very effective horror film shot here. Even hokey clichés like creaking doors and exploding light fixtures are trotted out to no effect whatsoever. The editing is often haphazard, for example in the bear trap sequence. While Mark and Janet flee the zombies Janet is caught in a bear trap. Shot one shows her being snared and Mark running out of the shot, shot two shows Mark on the ground pulling at the trap, in shot three Mark approaches Janet and starts to work at freeing her, and shot four pulls away into a shot identical to shot two. At two points the film lapses into a grainy slo-mo, as in the Parker family reunion in Bonnie and Clyde. In the first instance it emphasizes Evelyn's transition from cowering and running to being a woman of action and violently defending her son, and in the second it emphasizes a stunt man taking a really mean header over a banister.
The behavior of these zombies is puzzling. In the mandatory "boarding up the house" sequence, Kathleen the maid goes upstairs to look around. She gasps at the sight of an open window and a curtain swaying in the breeze. What does she have to worry about, she's on the second floor?! Zombies don't fly, do they? Well, given the number of things these zombies are proficient in, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they took wing. The maid falls victim to one that can throw spikes with ninja-like precision, they avail themselves of tools, weapons, battering rams, electric circular saws (!) and are adept climbers that can scale the walls of the estate. If Romero's zoms can gradually pick up rudimentary skills, these Etruscans must be in the advanced classes. Another strange sequence involving these guys occurs as James blows zombie heads off from a balcony. The undead look up as if to see where the bullets are coming from and their sunken eyes give them a baleful expression making them almost sympathetic. This strange kind of emotional content in a scene that is purely rudimentary is jarring.
Opinions are divided on the look of these zombies, designed by Gianetto De Rossi. I'll admit that the most effective of the zoms give me the creeps, but there are a few designs that make me snicker. The make up is obviously restricted to headpieces and gloves, the rest covered by long, ragged robes. These zombies have clearly been in ground for some time; their overall appearance is one of heavy decay and decomposition. Our disbelief is of course willingly suspending the fact that the Etruscans should have decomposed completely a long time ago. But that same willing suspension of disbelief is prodded by the few zombies who managed to sneak through without spending much time in the makeup chair. Anyway, the more elaborate heads of these Etruscans are crusty and dry with leathery skin and often liberal doses of maggots and worms. There is the occasional intact eyeball which usually belongs to the actor in question, but is sometimes an embarrassingly fake part of the mask. Making it even more comical is the obvious fact that some of these actors can’t see what the hell they're doing, as in the scene where Mark carefully places a zombie's hands around his neck. An interesting, logical choice was to make the zombies relatively fluid free. When their heads are smashed they just crumble and they bleed a sickly greenish ichor, rather than the "conkweestadores" of Zombi 2 that ooze like jelly donuts.
So enough about the undead, how about our humans? The zombies are by far the more interesting, given the fact that the humans get no character development whatsoever. They are even more stupid that the typical zombie film cast. One of the first things they do as the zombies attack is to close all the second floor windows. The acting is awful: the expressions are overdone and actors can often be seen looking for cues. Needless to say there aren't any famous faces here. Mariangela Giordano (Evelyn) has some genre recognition and Peter Bark's only film role has made him infamous. Ah, Peter Bark, who was saddled with the enviable role of playing a young boy with an incestuous attachment to his mother. This attachment is made overt in a sequence in which he kisses her on the lips, fondles her breasts, and makes an attempt for third base, to say nothing of what happens at the climax of the film (identified by Will Braineater as a trademark of writer Piero Regnoli). Despite the fact that the filmmakers didn’t find this subplot objectionable, they realized that they couldn't have an actual child play the role, so they found Peter Bark. Different sources give Bark's age as 25, in his 30s, and Jay Slater’s excellent book Eaten Alive! claims that Bark was 16. Regardless he looks like a 50 year old dwarf in a ridiculous toupee. I can't even describe the mix of repulsion and hilarity every time the poor bastard is on screen.
Peter Bark as Michael.
The soundtrack of this film is, well, notable. It ranges from the aforementioned lite jazz to cues that recall the library music favored by George Romero. Bubbling synths and light electronic music contribute to the strange atmosphere. The dubbing is of course atrocious, particularly as the butler seems mildly annoyed that his throat is being torn out by the reanimated Professor Ayres.
As the film stumbles towards its inevitable and badly misspelled end ("the nigths of terror") I still can't fully grasp its limited appeal. I think that the intangible quality of the film finds its fullest expression in Peter Bark: it's unwholesome yet somehow humorous and you can't help but watch in a kind of eager apprehension about what these weirdos are going to do next. Consider this a blood-drenched curiosity piece for horror buffs with a stomach for perversion as well as entrails.
It seems to be common practice in reviewing this film, so I'll drop some memorable dialogue on ya:
"You look just like a little whore, but I like that in a girl.": James to Leslie as she models lingerie she found in a trunk in the estate.
"Mama, this cloth smells of death!": Michael to Evelyn, presaging a zombie attack.
And my favorite: "What’s wrong?!?! I’m your son!!!": Michael answering his own question after making sexual advances towards his mother.