The mysterious DwC returns. Clearly, some kind of cinema scholar lurking among us, with a level of insight and appreciation beyond mortal man. He (we assume his gender!) has sent us another high-brow waltz through an unsung classic of yesteryear for our enjoyment – Burial Ground.
As you know, we love an Outposter contribution here at Last Movie Outpost. If you want to stand tall among your peers and achieve movie and entertainment enlightenment, send it to us at email@example.com and we can do the rest. Here is DwC.
Burial Ground (1981)
Directed by Andrea Bianchi – This analysis will contain spoilers.
A professor (Benito Barbieri) studying an ancient Etruscan burial ground located on the property of an estate mansion deciphers a hieroglyphic message found on a stone tablet, unleashing a curse that reanimates the dead interred within. Immediately upon his discovery, he is killed by the newly resurrected corpses deep within the catacombs. Shortly thereafter a group of colleagues, three couples and the 13-year-old son of one of the women, arrive to the mansion to hear details of the professor’s findings and are greeted by a butler and maid.
With the professor nowhere to be found the couples settle in and get comfortable, but before long the zombies make their way out of the tombs and lay siege to the mansion. With their numbers dwindling, escape routes few, and the zombies growing more intelligent by the moment, the guests struggle to survive the night, eventually deciding to fight their way through hordes of the undead to reach safety or be savagely killed trying.
The late 70s and early 80s were fertile ground for the zombie movie in the wake of the success of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. While all of these films are impeccable in their own right (Such as Hell of the Living Dead) not many could reach the heights of Romero’s masterpiece. Burial Ground does exactly that, however, and then some. Romero presented us with a funhouse mirror image of American society’s consumerism run amok, along with an indictment of man’s inhumanity towards man, and a warning of the dangers of coin-operated department store blood pressure testing machines.
Bianchi, obviously sickened by the upper class of Italy brashly encroaching upon sacred ancient sites and treating them like their own personal playground, had a little more on his mind.
Also in his crosshairs was the deterioration of the traditional Italian family structure, illustrated by the casting of 25-year-old legend Peter Bark in the role of Michael, the 13-year-old son of a promiscuous single mother who will feature in the greatest scene in the history of cinema in about one hour and seventeen minutes. The more cynical reviewer will claim this casting was done to skirt Italian obscenity laws, but this is incorrect.
This was a deliberate choice by Bianchi to brilliantly demonstrate how the destruction of Michael’s childhood forced him into premature adulthood thanks to his absentee father (who is never mentioned) and neglectful mother, Evelyn (Mariangela Giordano), who is too busy doting on her wealthy boyfriend George (Roberto Caporali) to even notice Michael.
Our three couples arrive at the estate, owned by George, where the professor had been studying the titular Etruscan burial ground, and immediately make themselves at home. Evelyn ditches Michael in an empty bedroom so she and George can go get busy in the bedroom down the hall, while James (Simone Mattioli) and Leslie (Antonella Antinori) find another bedroom and do the same. James, obviously the lady-killer of the group, delivers the greatest compliment I’ve ever heard when he tells Leslie she:
“…looks just like a little whore, but I like that!”
This is directly after she tries on some lingerie that she just found in the bureau. I’ve never been to Italy, but I assume it’s perfectly normal to put on someone else’s underwear if you find it in a drawer when you’re a guest in their house.
The other couple, Mark (Gianluigi Chirizzi) and Janet (Karin Well), make their way out to the estate grounds after Janet has a premonition that something terrible is going to happen. Mark takes charge of the situation and tells her to stop acting so stupid, and that’s the last we hear of any possible psychic abilities possessed by Janet. Instead, they head outside for a photo shoot that lasts about three minutes before they decide that the middle of a garden in broad daylight is the perfect place to shag.
Back in the house, Evelyn and George are interrupted by a curious Michael, who barges in and catches them doing the devil’s business. With the mood ruined by that creepy little bastard, George takes them on a tour of the house while the housekeeping staff, Kathryn (Anna Valente), and Nicholas (Claudio Zucchet who, believe it or not, actually worked with Martin Scorsese AND Francis Ford Coppola later in his career), are menaced by an electrical short in the dining room. A problem so terrifying Kathryn literally breaks down and begins screaming in terror because the lights in the chandelier are flickering. We are barely fifteen minutes into the film.
By now the zombies are making their way out of the catacombs, and more are starting to claw their way out of the earth. Now it’s Mark and Janet who are interrupted, but not by that little weirdo Michael; it’s one of the living dead that spoils the moment. Mark, ever the perceptive individual, declares that: “It’s not human! It’s a walking corpse!” He fights off the zombie and they head for the house, but Janet gets caught in a bear trap in the garden, obviously placed there to deal with the dire invasive bear problem that plagued western Italy in the late 70s and early 80s.
Mark saves her at the last second and they get back to mansion. George and Evelyn are doing a little target practice with George’s gun, indoors, when Michael becomes concerned over a rag that evidently smells of death. He tells his ma about it, and she basically tells him to stop being so fucking weird all the time. It’s a good thing George has his gun handy because just then, the dead shamble in and attack. George shoots several of them but it has no effect; they overwhelm him, rip his intestines out, and start stuffing their undead faces with his offal.
Luckily for Michael and Evelyn, there are some buckets of highly flammable latex paint laying around. She goes all Ellen Ripley (years before Aliens), douses the zombies, and sets them ablaze so her and Michael can escape to the inner part of the house. James and Leslie, who are now outside somehow, see zombie Peter Boyle along with many other corpses rising from the crypts scattered about the property and run back to the house.
With everyone now aware of the zombie threat, they make for the cars to escape, only to find zombies guarding the vehicles as night falls.
After the group barricades the doors and windows, Mark, still bossing around the help in typical rich guy fashion, asks Kathryn to check the rest of the house. When she reaches out a second story window to close the shutter, a zombie emerges from the bushes and throws a railroad spike with the accuracy of a British dart player, pinning her hand to the wooden shutter.
Unable to free her hand and apparently powerless to even pull her head inside the window, the zombies use a scythe to very slowly remove her head, which falls to the ground where the zombies eat it. Sensing something may be amiss, James goes to check on her and finds her corpse. Not wanting that thing in the house, he flips it out the window, but her headless body dangles from the railroad spike that still pins her hand to the shutter.
A group of zombies pull her down and feast away while the others find a toolshed and ransack it for weapons. As the zombies descend upon the house, James finds a rifle and starts shooting them in the head. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough bullets to make much of a dent in their numbers, and the zombies, getting smarter by the minute, retreat into the darkness. Then, in a masterful display of Hitchcockian suspense, an exceptionally clever zombie climbs a pillar and gains access to the upper levels of the mansion just as Leslie goes looking for bandages to wrap Janet’s bear trap-wounded foot.
As she passes a window the zombie smashes the glass in a brilliantly crafted jump-scare. It grabs her by the hair and starts pulling her out, her face and throat getting shredded by the shards as she struggles. Eventually, her hair gives way and the zombie falls, but Leslie bleeds to death from her wounds.
Outside, the zombies ramp up their assault, chopping at the shutters and doors with their axes and finally gaining entrance to the interior of the mansion, where Janet has to fight them off with a spear after Nicholas runs for help. Mark and James get there in the nick of time to save her as Evelyn and little Michael look on from another room, where they too come under attack. Evelyn once again goes into Ripley mode, lays waste to the zombies that are terrorizing Michael, and they escape while Mark and James destroy the rest and re-board the windows.
The scene that follows is somewhat notorious, with most chalking it up to the exploitative nature of late 70s/early 80s Grindhouse cinema. But that is to the untrained eye. Michael, having just experienced a severe mental trauma, reverts to a toddler-like state and seeks safety in the arms of his mother in the only way he knows how; by imitating the intimate moment he witnessed between his mother and George.
Yes, Andrea Bianchi has the courage to go there, and Michael begins to get, uh… a little handsy with mama.
Appalled, and probably a bit confused, Evelyn deals with the situation in classic 80s mother fashion and slaps him square in his pie hole. In shock, Michael screams in reply:
“What’s wrong? I’M YOUR SON!”
Then he runs upstairs to find a cold shower and possibly a therapist, while Evelyn sits there contemplating the life choices she made that led to her son turning into a weird, incestuous little freak. That’s when Michael runs into the newly zombified Leslie…
Back downstairs, Mark comes up with an ingenious plan: perhaps the zombies are after something inside the mansion and not him and his friends, so why not just let them in and run away from them? The others, having never heard such brilliant critical thinking, agree. Not that they had much of a choice, because now the zombies have fashioned a goddamned medieval battering ram and are bashing down the main door. So, they open the doors and let the zombies in the house while Evelyn, feeling a little guilty about the child abuse she inflicted upon her son, goes looking for him.
She finds him in the bathroom, but unfortunately, he’s dead and Leslie is halfway through eating him. Evelyn’s mind snaps, and she bashes Leslie’s head to pieces on the edge of the bathtub. The others, hearing Evelyn shrieking at zombie Leslie as she turns her head into goo, run in and immediately realize their plan is not going to work. The decision is then made to make a run for it.
Nicholas goes to find weapons and bumps into the undead professor, who instantly kills and eats him. Seeing this as an opportunity, Mark, James, Janet, and Evelyn escape the house and run off into the countryside, eventually spying a monk walking into a monastery in the distance. Since there is nothing unusual or suspicious about this, Mark agrees to stay with Janet and Evelyn while James goes in search of the cloaked figure. He opens a door to a room full of praying monks but, it’s a trap!
The zombies that were just at the mansion have beat them to the monastery, stole some robes, and waited patiently for the group to show up looking for help. The zombies have officially become smarter than our protagonists. They grab James and treat themselves to a James buffet. As his corpse slowly rises from the table where he served as the main course the others, now down to just three, take off and seek shelter in some kind of carpentry shop. They barricade the doors and prepare to hunker down but it’s too late; the zombies are already inside. Mark fights one of them off and they make for the doors, but the place is surrounded.
And then… Michael appears.
Folks, in my writing I try not to resort to hyperbole, but you need to prepare yourselves. And I do apologize as my mere words cannot do this scene justice. Even if you’ve never seen this film, you may be aware that this scene exists. Perhaps you refused to believe it, thinking that something so spectacular can only be the result of decades of cumulative urban legend, one detail added to the last every time the story got retold. But it’s real, and it’s the single greatest moment ever captured on celluloid. I mean this literally; in the history of the moving image, nothing else comes within a thousand miles of what you are about to see, in this film, right now.
Evelyn sees Michael, and in her shattered mental state she refuses to accept that he’s a zombie. She runs upstairs despite the warnings from Mark and Janet and embraces Michael. Completely insane on a cocktail of grief, guilt, and regret, she reverts to the basest of innate motherly instincts, lowers her top… and offers Michael her teet.
“Just like when you were a baby.”
For a few seconds it appears to be working, as Michael gently suckles like a newborn. None of this is implied. The camera cuts to Mark and Janet who have stopped yelling for her to get away, most likely stunned into a state of confused silence, or maybe just wanting to see how this plays out.
The scene then cuts back to Michael… right as he bites down with the force of a crocodile and pulls away a massive mouthful of mammary, gnawing and chewing in graphic detail. Evelyn collapses to the floor as the zombies bust down the barricade, throw Mark under the blade of a compound miter saw, and surround Janet. The screen freezes, and the chilling words of one of the most famous predictions ever made appear on the screen:
“The earth shall tremble… the graves shall open…
They shall come among the living as messengers of death
and there shall be the nights of terror.”
The Profecy (sic) of the Black Spider
The credits roll.
Art scholars have a term for the rare occasion when an individual would create a masterwork so profound, so above and beyond what that person should be capable of, and so incomprehensibly beautiful that it defies all logic. That term is ‘Prophetic Art.’ It means that God literally came down and worked through the artist to create something genuinely divine.
With Burial Ground, Andrea Bianchi created his one piece of Prophetic Art (‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ is pretty good too, though). This is the most perfectly directed and paced work of ‘horror as metaphor for social ills’ that you’re likely to ever see. The acting is top-tier, especially by Peter Bark. I was unable to confirm that he was nominated for the Italian equivalent of the Oscar in 1981, so we’re forced to assume that he was.
The way the mansion is photographed by cinematographer Gianfranco Maioletti makes the place a character unto itself, and his work clearly served as inspiration for Roger Deakins. The special effects are stunning for the time and the rotting zombies, often photographed in broad daylight with maggots hanging off their faces, are staggering to behold.
Last but not least is the film’s score by Elsio Mancuso and Berto Pisano; Perfection. It is excellent to the point that the work of John Williams sounds like a grizzly bear farting into a box fan in comparison. That these men had very long careers as composers is not surprising.
After this film, perhaps knowing his life and career had peaked, Peter Bark faded into obscurity. Andrea Bianchi would continue to direct, but he would never again reach the impossibly high zenith that is Burial Ground. Poignant, profound, confrontational, and immeasurably important. Burial Ground is a film for the ages.
10 teets eaten out of 10
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