To celebrate Halloween this year, Dim the House Lights will be treating our readers to a horror movie recommendation a day for the ten days leading up to everyone’s favorite holiday. So sharpen your knives, carve your pumpkins, sit back and let the terror take over.
The zombie genre has a lot of jewels in its crown: the Romero films, Fulci’s Zombi and The Beyond, Braindead, Shaun of the Dead and (depending on where you stand on the running zombie debate) 28 Days Later and the [REC] movies. But as with any sub-genre overloaded by decades upon decades of derivative content, a lot of great movies inevitably slip through the cracks. In 1980, Andrea Bianchi directed a little Italian zombie flick called Burial Ground (aka The Nights of Terror, The Video Dead, Zombi 3). It barely received a theatrical release in the US, showing on only a handful of screens in 1985 before being dumped on VHS in the UK with so many cuts it was hardly worth watching at all. However, the uncut version slowly gained a devoted cult following and the film’s gonzo reputation grew from there. While it might have ascended the ranks to become a favorite among zombie purists, Burial Ground remains heavily under-seen. If you were to google “Best Zombie Films of All Time” you’d be hard pressed to find it mentioned. In short: this is probably the best zombie movie nobody is talking about.
By the 1980s, the Italians got really good at making zombie movies. Not all of them were classics, of course–most were just cheap cash-ins or xeroxes of seminal entries–but as far special effects, sex and violence were concerned, Italy was the country that really delivered the goods. The thing that makes Burial Ground stand out, even in such cluttered company, is how quickly we get to the carnage and how constant it is. The movie has very little time for set-up. We meet a weird scientist (and apparent part-time ZZ Top member) as he unleashes an evil curse which re-animates the dead. Skip forward to a set of couples arriving at a nearby mansion for a weekend getaway, throw in a few obligatory sex scenes for nudity and BOOM! By minute sixteen, the zombies have shuffled onto the scene, taken a few chunks out of the disposable supporting cast, and the main players have hastily barricaded themselves in the mansion now under siege from the hoard of flesh-eaters outside. The rest of the movie is then freed up to become, essentially, one extended set-piece of zombies either getting the hell blown out of them or strategically killing off our heroes.
Now, the special effects in Burial Ground leave a lot to desired, but they’re serviceable, if not very consistent. Some zombies appear to have a rubber mask of worms while others are just extras with a bit of grease-paint on their forehead. What they lack in appearance, however, they make up for in character. What’s cool about the zombies here is that Bianchi has them actively band together to force their way into the mansion. These zombies arm themselves with axes, use a massive log to break down doors and, in one of the film’s signature scenes, manage to wield a giant scythe in order to behead an unlucky maid looking over a balcony three floors up. It’s all utterly ridiculous but pretty fantastic in the almost comic-book level of imagination behind it. I also love how each set-piece is designed to top the previous one. There’s even a shot-by-shot redo of the famous “splinter in the eye” kill from Fulci’s Zombi but with a shard of glass replacing Fulci’s wooden stake because, well, why not? They always say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though I suspect in this instance it was merely an attempt at trying to cash the same check twice.
So we’ve established that Burial Ground works as a relentless siege picture with zombies and as a competent special effects showcase, but the film’s most talked-about ingredient is actually an actor named Peter Bark. Bark was in his mid-twenties when he shot Burial Ground, but his small stature and boyish looks meant that he was cast as Michael, the ten-year-old son of Evelyn, one of the film’s protagonists. “Why not just cast someone closer to the character’s age?,” you might ask. Well, amidst all the zombie shenanigans, the film does find time to include one seriously bonkers subplot involving Michael developing sexual feelings for his mother. The timing of this development is hilarious. Immediately after escaping a violent attack, Evelyn takes her son to one side and comforts him. Naturally, he takes this as permission to kiss her seductively while shoving his hand in between her legs and fondling her exposed breast. The fact it goes that far is uncomfortable enough, but it’s worth it for the button on the scene in which Evelyn slaps Michael across the face and he races away blubbering “But I’m your son!” Yeah, no shit, sunshine. Also, considering the pressing zombie invasion in the other room, one must ask: is this really the fucking time or place?
A lot of cult favorites often earn their stripes due to some inherent WTF-ness, and Burial Ground’s incestuous subplot certainly checks that box. While it may first appear like a misjudged plot contrivance to shoehorn in some tits and ass amidst all the meat-munching, Bianchi actually uses it to set up the film’s final scene and boy oh boy, is it a doozy (Now I’m not going to hesitate in spoiling the ending because, frankly, I think it will entice readers to see the movie beyond any twist-sensitive endorsements, but if you do want to see how the Michael and Evelyn affair concludes unspoiled then maybe skip straight to the next paragraph). So after Michael runs away in a tantrum he ends up getting devoured by a bunch of dead-heads. Evelyn and the remaining characters then escape to another part of the mansion and somehow manage to filter through the hoard of zombies but find themselves at a dead-end. A zombified Michael then shuffles into the scene and Evelyn, feeling guilty for rebuffing him earlier and apparently unaware that he’s now a zombie, runs over to her son and offers him her breast for compensation. Michael, like a hungry baby, wraps his lips around her nipple but then proceeds to completely bite it off. So Michael eats his mum’s tit. Evelyn screams. Everyone screams. The zombies close in and, with nowhere left to go, the film just ends right there mid-action. Wait, what?
Upon first watching Burial Ground, I left the film with a perplexed sense of being wholly entertained. It never sags for a minute and achieves a perfect blend of B-movie dumbness and genre satisfaction. There’s a sixty-minute barrage of genuinely engaging zombie action and twenty minutes of either mandatory exposition or fucking out-there sexual deviance. Plus, man-child Peter Bark’s bizarre performance is the ace-in-the-hole and makes the film’s human element just as memorable as its flesh-eaters. You could never argue that Burial Ground is up there with Romero’s Dawn of the Dead but as a second-tier zombie romp it certainly groans loudly with the best of them.
Burial Ground is available on home video courtesy of Severin Films.
Directed by Andrea Bianchi; written by Piero Regnoli; starring Mariangela Giordano, Peter Bark, Roberto Caporali, Anna Valente; 85 minutes.