The gates of Hell have opened!
Even for a tried and true horror fan like myself, Andrea Bianchi’s 1981 zombie splatter film Burial Ground (aka The Nights of Terror, aka Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror) is one of the craziest movies ever made. It features wall-to-wall ghouls in unconvincing makeups, maggots crawling from their faces. It takes 85 minutes to tell roughly 15 minutes worth of story. It’s got gut munching. It’s got incest. Most famously, it has adult little person actor Peter Bark playing a child totally unconvincingly. There is hardly any objective metric by which Burial Ground could be called a “good” horror movie. Spoiler: I love it.
There’s hardly anything to the story. After a brief prologue in which a bearded scientist accidentally unleashes a plague of hungry undead, three couples and one child (the aforementioned Peter Bark, playing Michael) arrive at a mansion; faster than you can say “I’m pretty sure that’s not a kid,” the group is besieged by the zombies, who try to eat them in slow and agonizing detail. In many cases, they are successful. Also, a kid who is too old to breastfeed tries to make out with his mom and breastfeed, but I guess it’s ok because he’s played by an adult pretending to be a kid who’s too old to breastfeed but too young to be convincingly played by an adult. Such is a beauty of Burial Ground.
Bianchi, whose most notable film prior to this one was the insane sleaze fest of a gallo Strip Nude for Your Killer, is clearly pulling from a number of influences for Burial Ground. Like a lot of Italian horror of the ‘80s, the movie is derivative of much of what came before — Romero’s zombie series is the most obvious inspiration, but there’s a lot that’s clearly borrowed from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie as well. Except for the casting of Bark and the truly weird subtext of his character’s relationship to his mother, Burial Ground doesn’t add anything new to the zombie genre. But it’s also not just some incompetent and borderline dull Bruno Mattei-style rip-off, either. No, Burial Ground is way too bonkers and watchable to be boring despite Bianchi’s seemingly concerted effort to make it so. He constantly slows down the photography so things can play out in slow motion, sometimes to revel in a gore effect and sometimes because he’s trying to pad the runtime. But in the same way that some of Fulci’s most famously drawn out gore sequences have the effect of a nightmare from which we cannot look away, Burial Ground sometimes takes on a similar feeling. Zombies will approach a character very slowly — slowly enough for that character to run away pretty easily — but instead the sequence continues to an almost agonizing length and eventually feels like being stuck in molasses and not being able to look away as something horrible is about to happen.
But let’s not kid ourselves. There are some movies that require only one or two elements that are so original or out there that it makes the whole thing become memorable. In these terms, Burial Ground’s real secret weapon is Peter Bark. The decision to cast what is so clearly an adult man as a child — and then dub him with what sounds like an adult trying to approximate a child’s voice on top of it — is so misguided and bizarre that it gives the movie that “am I actually seeing this?” vibe that’s harder and harder to come by the more crazy movies you see. I assume the reason for the casting choice is because of the sexual content that pops up later, but that’s less a justification than it is further evidence of this movie’s insanity. Bark isn’t actually in the movie that much, but his enormous eyes and creepy man-face keep Burial Ground in the minds of horror fans. It’s the type of film where, even if you can’t remember the title, you think to yourself “Oh, that movie with that odd man playing a kid and biting off his mother’s boob.” And with that single sentence, you know if you will spend your life avoiding Burial Ground or if you’ll be seeking it out as soon as possible.
I’ve said before that we are living in the Golden Age of horror on home video, with dozens of titles we never could have expected to receive Criterion-level treatment being made available in stunning new versions and with lots of bonus content. For proof of this, look no further than Severin’s Blu-ray of Burial Ground. The film has been given a new and positively stunning 2K transfer and is presented in full 1080p HD; save for those aspects of the visuals inherent in the low-budget 16mm photography (like a queasy color palette and some general softness), Severin’s new transfer is virtually flawless. It’s also less forgiving of the cheap makeups and gore effects than the original VHS release probably was, but that comes with the territory of upgrading to high def. Two audio options are offered: a lossless English track featuring the often unintentionally hilarious dubbing and a standard Dolby digital stereo track with the original Italian dialogue. English subtitles are offered for those who prefer the Italian track.
With as much padding as there is in the editing of Burial Ground, it’s amazing to think that there was anything shot that didn’t make the final cut. However, there’s about 10 minutes of deleted footage — lots of zombie walking, some more sex and nudity and a few other even less interesting moments — included on Severin’s disc that proves that yes, there was in fact some material that Bianchi felt would have slowed the movie down. Also included is a new interview with actor Simone Mattioli (called “Just for the Money,” explaining his reasons for taking the project), a featurette on the mansion where the film was shot, an archival interview with star Mariangela Giordano and producer Gabriele Cristanti and some footage from a panel discussion with Peter Bark. The original trailer is also included.
Even by the standards of Italian horror, Burial Ground is a lunatic piece of sleaze-filled trash that’s downright hypnotic in its pure WTF-ness. Despite having so much in common with the zombie and splatter films of the period, it manages to stand apart in ways that might alienate casual horror fans but will only endear the movie more to those of us always looking for weird new filmic experiences. Severin’s restoration of the movie is amazing, giving a true B (or C or D) movie the A-level treatment. It may never be one of the best of the Italian zombie cycle, but it’s certainly one of the most distinct.