Monday, December 18, 2017

"He's a Strange Type. I Guess All Scientists Are" - Burial Ground (1985)

While Andrea Bianchi's classic zombie film Burial Ground (1985) aka The Nights of Terror aka Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror is appreciated by the finer critics of your universe, I have found some reviewers who, as usual, miss the point entirely.

On IMDB, reviewer signalelectric writes, "This movie has almost no directorial style, and the class equivalent of an 80's porno movie." Uriah43 writes, "I thought it went on way too long and I was totally bored about halfway through. I rate it as below average." Jonny_Numb writes, "Avoid this at all costs, unless you're VERY undiscriminating toward the genre."

For those who are discriminating toward (or at least in the general direction of) the zombie film genre, I must correct these critics and describe how Burial Ground serves as one of the finest examples of that very genre.

Appropriately, the narrative begins in a burial ground, as an archeologist is gleefully excavating tablets with happy faces etched into them. Fortunately for the archeologist, the burial ground is part of the same property as a luxurious, massive Italian villa, where he decodes the petroglyphs and realizes they hold an incredible secret--a secret so incredible he must venture outside at night to return to the excavation.

The spectacularly-bearded archeologist is not so fortunate when his hammering away at a stone wall somehow triggers an ancient trap that releases a toothy zombie.

"No, stand back," says the man. Profoundly, he adds, "I'm your friend," perhaps a reference to his occupation as a friend to long-dead civilizations, perhaps because he enjoys zombie cinema, or perhaps as a mere ruse to save himself.

In any case, he is quickly devoured by the Etruscan undead.

After this prologue, the main titles roll over images of cars driving in a procession toward the luxurious villa from the opening. The cars arrive in order of their cost: first a Mercedes-Benz, then a station wagon, then a Volkswagen beetle.

At the gate to the villa, George gets out of the Mercedes and touches a brick post, existentially miming the action of pushing a call button while explaining to his wife that he never installed any telephones in the villa because it was a place to which to escape.

The three cars park in front of the mansion. A maid opens the door of the Mercedes. A butler opens the door of the station wagon. The VW driver is on his own.

The visitors enter the villa and immediately go to bed. We are introduced to them gradually and find out that all of them resemble Martin Short to varying degrees. For example, a little boy is played by adult actor Peter Bark (aka Pietro Barzocchini) in a manner reminiscent of the groundbreaking Martin Short vehicle Clifford (1994).

(There are differences however; presumably, Clifford did not enjoy spying on his mother having sex with random men.)

As the villa's guests bed down for the evening, the audience views a group of slow-moving zombies walk nonchalantly through the subterranean burial ground. Their casual walking speed appears to be no match for the rotation of the earth, however, as nothing happens during the night and we rejoin the guests at breakfast, where their red-headed host George appears even more Martin Short-like than before.

When the guests, after calling each other "slugabeds," inquire about Professor Ayres, the villa's resident archeologist, George dismisses their curiosity. "He's a strange type. I guess all scientists are."

Then he explains that the professor was researching magic Etruscan practices having to do with the survival of the dead (presaging, alas, George Romero's final film).

"I've always been terrified of the dead," a woman named Janet interjects, sensibly. "I hope we're going to leave them in peace." (While the purpose of this country visit is not entirely clear, bothering the dead is a very common pastime in rural Italy, so Janet's hope is well founded.)

The guests pair off, leaving diminutive Michael to remain at the breakfast table.

Janet and her boyfriend Mark venture out onto the villa's grounds to take photographs. "You're turning into a great little model," Mark says, high praise indeed. Janet stumbles on the ground, blaming it on the earth suddenly disappearing under her feet, though there is absolutely no evidence of her claim.

The Etruscan zombies finally reach the guests in the middle of the day, their arrival preceded by the violent shattering of dozens of electric light bulbs, a supernatural sight that causes the villa's maid to scream repeatedly.

In a sculpture studio, Clifford-like Michael watches George give Michael's mother a firearms lesson, but seeing them in an intimate position is too much for Michael. "Mama!" he says, and waits for his mother to embrace him.

Outside, more zombies are converging on the villa, some of them sauntering through underground tunnels while others take the more traditional rising-from-the-grass route.

One of the latter Etruscans slowly creeps toward Janet and Mark making love very inefficiently in the grass.

Janet and Mark are startled by a few of the corpses, but they easily run past them and back to the villa.

Back in the sculpture studio, Michael finds a burlap cloth similar to the clothing worn by all the Etruscans. He delivers the immortal line, "Mother, this cloth. It smells of death."

But Michael is proven correct, as a zombie opens the door and enters the studio.

"Who are you?" asks George rationally. "What are you here for?"

It is fortunate George was giving Michael's mother firearms lessons. He holds the zombies at bay with his pistol, threatening to shoot them.

He shoots them all in the stomach, which results in holes in their burlap garments and a greenish-brown fluid leaking out. He does not think to shoot the zombies in the head, and so George is disemboweled by the Etruscans, revealing that his insides are an exceptionally bright shade of red, nicely matching his shirt.

In a clever transition, the film follows two more lovers in the villa's graveyard who are beset by the zombies. They run, easily outpacing the slow-moving dead, until they encounter a closed door. As they bang on the door, the film cuts to a different couple--Karen and Mark--bursting through a different door, and then the filmmakers follow Karen and Mark. The transition is seamless as we watch the first couple run for their lives and then we watch the second couple escaping.

Unfortunately for the aforementioned second couple, Karen gets her foot caught in one of the bear traps littering the villa grounds as the zombies move in on her and Mark.

Mark and Karen are saved by the other couple, who expertly wield heavy rocks to bash the zombies' skulls in, though the pitchfork lying unused on the ground might have made an equally effective weapon.

"This must be what the professor was trying to tell us," concludes Mark.

The guests all make it into the villa, with George the only casualty so far. The men courageously send the maid to check out the rest of the house and make sure there are no zombies inside. Using only a candle, she inspects the house, finding one window open. When she leans out the window to start closing it, a zombie throws a spike at her hand, nailing it to the side of the building.

What follows is one of the film's most excruciatingly suspenseful scenes, as the zombie raises a scythe with a 10-foot handle toward the maid. Slowly, the blade of the scythe approaches her. Finally, it slices through her neck, sending her head down to the ground for the zombies to devour it.

Her body is found by one of the guests. "My God! No!" he says. Then he tosses the maid's decapitated body out the window. As would anyone in his situation.

Based on no evidence whatsoever, the guest who found the maid says, "They can only be killed by blowing their heads off." He finds a shotgun and shoots as many zombies as he can from an upstairs balcony.

(In this sequence, the zombies pound on the villa door with a rhythmic beat not unlike tribal drums, underscoring the symbolism of all European zombie films, which liken zombie holocausts to third world uprisings against colonial Europeans. And their heads explode marvelously.)

These Etruscan zombies reveal themselves to be adept not only at using gardening implements for murder, but also at climbing villa walls in a Peter Parker-like fashion.

After a reprisal of the famous splinter vs. eyeball scene in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie—which in Burial Ground somehow results in the demise of both the human and the zombie—Janet fends off the zombies with a long pike, though she is trapped in a room full of swords, machetes, and even a pistol on the table.

After the zombies are dispatched, the film presents one of its most famously disturbing sequences, as Michael and his mother try to comfort each other. In their relationship, comforting means an extended makeout session that includes the young son fondling his mother’s breast. “Oh Mama,” says Michael, “I love you so much. I need to feel you near me. I need to touch you. When I was a baby, you always used to hold me to your breast. I loved your breasts so much, Mama.”

His mother finds this behavior a bit odd, so she slaps him. He runs away and is immediately attacked by Leslie, the woman on the wrong end of the eyeball poking.

The others hit upon a foolproof plan: Let the zombies into the house because they are probably after something other than murdering humans. “We can keep out of their reach,” says Mark, then he adds disparagingly, “They’re all so slow.”

Michael’s mother discovers her son lying apparently dead on the floor, being devoured by the zombified Leslie. After strangling Leslie to (a second) death, Michael’s mother embraces the boy, but, though he has sustained very little damage from Leslie’s attack, he is quite dead.

Meanwhile, the zombies have entered the house via battering ram, as zombies are wont to do. They traipse through the estate, but the survivors are able to avoid them through the clever means of closing a door.

Soon the professor from the opening makes an appearance as a zombie with bloodstained eyes.

The professor strangles and bites the throat of the butler, whose dying utterances betray an understandable mild annoyance with his unexpected murder.

The men discover the professor devouring the butler. “Why, that’s Professor Ayers,” says one man.

“He’s a zombie too, then,” deduces the other man. “Come on. Let’s get as far away as we can.”

By sunup, the group has made their way to what appears to be a guest house on the villa grounds. The two couples who have survived decide to venture even farther from the titular burial ground, reaching an old monastery. They sit down and Mark inspects Janet’s ankle, which she has hurt. She cries out when he touches it. He continues touching it, and she continues moaning in pain. “The monks here are sure to have something for your ankle,” Mark says, continuing to inspect it.

Meanwhile, James, who pleasingly resembles a Westworld-era Richard Benjamin more and more throughout the course of the film, wisely decides to explore the monastery on his own. He comes across a room full of monks performing a ritual. When they look up at him, he realizes they are zombies as well. Naturally, his expression is one of sheer terror.

Mark and the women hear James’s screams as the zombies attack him, so Mark helps the injured women stumble toward the screams.

What they find is not reassuring, so after screaming for a moment, the three survivors escape the monastery for the relative safety of the forest.

Their next stop is a model-builder’s workshop protected by a prison-cell door — surely safer than a villa or a monastery. But after they have closed the prison door, they realize a zombie is in the workshop with them. Mark fends off the zombie by striking him gently on the shoulders with a small bedpost, but his actions have surprisingly little effect on the living dead. Mark’s only recourse is to push the zombie over a balcony, which dispatches it quite effectively.

Next occurs the film’s most famous scene — and one of the undisputed highlights of world cinema. Somehow, the young boy Michael has reached the model-builder’s workshop. His mother runs to him, elated to see her son despite his previously dead condition. She embraces him.

“Stop, Evelyn! Don’t touch it! No! It’s a zombie!” cries Mark.

Perhaps his words are not clear enough, as Michael’s mother draws the boy closer to her breasts. Naturally, he fondles her and pulls her top open, his face at her breast.

“Go ahead, darling,” says his mother. “I know you want to.”

What happens next needs to be seen rather than described, so I will refrain from spoiling its magnificent glory, except to say that Evelyn expires from a significant but not extremely large wound, and the remaining couple is overrun by the zombie monks.

And the zombies, tool-users until the end, use a circular saw on one of their victims.

Will our heroes survive the all-out zombie assault?

We never find out, as the film freezes with a quote from something called the Profecy of the Black Spider. (It is unclear if the misspellings of "prophecy" and "nights" are taken from the original ancient text or were added by the filmmakers.)

From my extensive researches about this film, I believe it all to be true. This fact is based primarily on the epigraph (and I use that word incorrectly) presented in the final frames of the narrative. "The earth shall tremble...graves shall open...they shall come among the living as messengers of death and there shall be the nights of terror...." is presented as a quotation from the prophecies of the Black Spider. From what I have been able to gather, the Black Spider (or Ragno Nero) is the pseudonym of a 14th century Franciscan monk whose prophecies were found in a book hidden in a monastery and discovered by workmen in the 20th century. Of course, this history supports the monk's ability to predict the future, and it supports the presence of zombies in Italian burial grounds in the 1980s as well. I have not been able to confirm, however, that the quotation ending the film is in fact part of the Black Spider prophecies, as an extensive Google search (consisting of three entire pages of Google results) lists only results pertaining to the film itself. Therefore, the film's historical accuracy, while presumably great, might be said to be in question.

I am not the first writer to point out that the highlight of Burial Ground is the relationship between Evelyn and her son Michael, or that the young boy is played by an adult actor of small stature. (In fact, I hope not to be the last writer to point this out.) Some might interpret director Bianchi's portrayal of the mother-son relationship as an attack on the institution of motherhood, but I prefer to see it as an endorsement of parental love, which is so strong that it is, in the end, self-sacrificing. I admit I do not understand the intent or value of sexualizing that love, so I might be misconstruing Bianchi's undoubtedly profound statement on the parental bond. In any case, I must end this review by asking: What parent would not act in the same was as Evelyn, given similar circumstances?

And here is the only answer I would ever expect: No parent, surely, would ever act in the same way as Evelyn, under any circumstances.