“Burial Ground” (1981): Don’t Disturb the Dead
The Italian zombie cycle was kickstarted by Dario Argento’s Zombi cut of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and exacerbated by Lucio Fulci’s own unofficial follow-up, Zombi 2. From there, producers commissioned Dardano Sacchetti or Claudio Fragasso (or, in the case of Burial Ground, Piero Regnoli) to pen slightly different scripts so they could run the flesheating trend into the ground, hopefully pocketing a quick buck in the process.
For many years, I considered Burial Ground the nadir of that cycle; a film that epitomized, obviously and shamelessly, the cynicism inherent in the Unabashed Rip-Off.
I watched it once, after its release by Shriek Show (the horror arm of the late Media Blasters) at the dawn of the genre-DVD era, and was left very unimpressed. I also might have been somewhat under the influence of the now-defunct horror website, Kult Movie Maximus (formerly Aylmer’s Grisly Grimey Page of Unspeakable Horror), which admonished the film as “a contender for the worst ever made.”
It’s not that Burial Ground slacks in the area of zombie action: there’s plenty of in-your-face gut-munching on display, often in adoring close-up, and the effects are decent enough. In terms of carnage craftsmanship, director Andrea Bianchi (Strip Nude for Your Killer) easily outclasses a prolific hack like Jess Franco.
No, the problem with Burial Ground is its general apathy toward everything outside the zombie action. Granted, while most Italian zombie flicks used flimsy-to-ridiculous pretexts to justify an outbreak of the undead (Bruno Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead being particularly chuckalicious), there was at least some dot-connecting on the way to an inevitable conclusion. Similarly, characters may not have popped off the screen with their idiosyncratic traits, but at the very least, we were given some people to root for.
In both those regards, Burial Ground fails. Opening with a very bearded professor doing research on the Etruscans, he unearths a rune during an archaeological dig, and without even reading the inscription, somehow wakes the dead. Cut to a group of…contemporaries? friends? fellow history buffs? Who knows, but they’re off to the professor’s villa for a weekend full of fun, frolic, and fucking. Retiring to their quarters after a long drive, they awaken the next morning, exchange perfunctory backstory, and wander about the grounds. It doesn’t take long for the undead – a mix of Fulci and the cheesy eyeball-danglers from Oasis of the Zombies – to start stalking. What ensues is a survival scenario that has forward momentum but no real stakes, and a dismal endgame.
That said, Bianchi directs the whole thing with a sense of style and urgency. The villa is expansive and regal (including tapestries on the walls), and he explores most of its nooks and crannies. While the zombie masks may be exaggerated and silly at times (did people in centuries past have teeth like saber-toothed tigers?), his use of light and shadow renders them periodically menacing. The way the undead start to pick up scythes and other sharp implements is hilariously random, and for zombies that are missing one or both eyes, they’re able to throw spikes from a distance, with great accuracy! The gut-munching is properly in your face, and the zombies, when shot or cut, bleed a gray-green guck that is appropriate, considering how decomposed some are.
But Burial Ground‘s crowning sleaze achievement is the incestuous relationship between mother Evelyn (Mariangela Giordano) and son Michael (Pietro Barzocchini, anglicized to “Peter Bark” in the credits). Bianchi, who also directed porn, is as interested in skin and seediness as he is in the standard zombie stuff, and while casting an actual child would have been absolute taboo (not to mention illegal), the fact that the dwarfish Barzocchini was in his 20s at the time adds a layer of otherworldly queasiness to the proceedings. Michael’s bug-eyed, pod-person appearance endears him as a visual metaphor for arrested development – a grown man trapped in a child’s body – and his relationship with Evelyn is the closest the film gets to anything approaching “depth.” Does it contribute to any greater themes? No, but in a low-down and perverse way, it’s still fun to watch.
Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
(Burial Ground is available on Blu-ray from Severin.)