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Frank's Movie Log

My life at the movies.

Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror

(Le notti del terrore)
1981 | Italy | 85 min | More...
A still from Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981)
C: 3 stars (out of 5)
on Thu May 23, 2024

Teamwork wins. That’s the takeaway from Burial Ground, an Italian zombie horror that packs just enough originality to set itself above the mass of Zombie knock-offs.

The setup involves a professor working at an isolated country estate. He uncovers a dark secret in the nearby caves that awakens hordes of zombies, who trap and devour him.

Cut to three couples, including the estate’s owner, who’ve arrived for a country getaway. The professor is missing, and the maid and butler seem anxious, but the couples seem oblivious. They split up into pairs, exploring the grounds, and having sex before the zombies emerge, picking off a few unlucky guests before the rest barricade themselves inside the main house.

So far, pretty standard fare. A mix of traditional zombie and slasher sex-equals-death sleaze. Director Andrea Bianchi maximizes the location, staging scenes in the gardens, and using the estate’s long hallways to engender a sense of claustrophobia.

But what elevates Burial Ground is what happens next. The zombies work together, adopting tools and teamwork, while the survivors split up at every opportunity.

In a memorable sequence, the houseguests send the maid to check the hallway for zombies. It’s dark, and she makes her way by candlelight. She spies an open window and peers out. One zombie hurls a spike that nails her hand to the windowsill, while beneath her, two more zombies hoist a scythe up and over her head. As the maid wails in pain from her pinned hand, the zombies yank down the scythe, sending her head tumbling down to their waiting arms.

Later, the zombies eschew the usual mass pounding on the entry (think of the hordes in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead pressing against the mall’s glass door) and instead arrive with a battering ram. Romero’s ghouls never did that.

There’s also the infamous sequence involving one survivor and her son. Twenty-five-year-old Pietro Barzocchini plays the son, named Michael, who’s meant to be around twelve. The casting seems odd until it’s revealed that Michael has Oedipal designs on his mother. Making the situation even more bizarre, Barzocchini resembles less a child than a diminutive Dario Argento. During the scenes where he whines for his mother’s breast, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe.

This film followed the worldwide commercial success of director Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, and Bianchi apes not only the look of that film’s undead, but even a memorable shot of a zombie emerging from the soil with maggots crawling over its face. But such blatant similarities invite comparisons to Fulci’s work—to the film’s detriment.

That borderline comedic bit aside, Bianchi aspires to the same nihilistic dread as Fulci’s Zombie and City of the Living Dead, but falls short of mustering the same suffocating sense of futility.

He also makes some technical gaffes. While the aforementioned zombie emergence shot shines, too often the pink flesh around the performers’ eyes or wrists betrays illusion. Bianchi doesn’t help by staging many zombie attacks in daylight exteriors or well-lit interiors and lingering on the zombies in medium shots.

And the score’s jazz synth noises—while original—seem detached from the film, making me appreciate frequent Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi all the more.

Still, the novelty of zombie teamwork, combined with the inanity of a miniature Dario Argento lusting after his mother, elevates Burial Ground above mere knock-off to something of a curio. It’s not a great movie, but for Italian horror fans—who’ll appreciate the Argento reference—it’s well worth a look.

Viewing History

    Watched on
    Thu May 23, 2024 via 4k UHD Blu-ray (88 Films, 2023)