Burial Ground (1981) Blu-ray Review: Still Smelling of Death After All These Years

There really isn’t a movie like Burial Ground.

My first encounter with this notorious Italian gut-muncher from 1981 probably occurred a good seven years after the film first hit home video in the US, by which time the movie had already become a regular dust collector in rental stores across the nation. And one of the reasons why this was so is attributable to the fine craftsmanship which can be seen in every single frame of the picture: it stinks. Good God, how this movie stinks! But of course, when you’re a teen-aged boy with nothing short of an addiction to gory Italian horror movies, something as godawful as Burial Ground seems like a great godsend instead. Even if some of its title cards are completely and hilariously illiterate, boasting misspelled words such as “nihgts” and “profecy.”

Indeed, the film’s over-the-top moments of blood and gore ‒ to say nothing of the abundance of naked lady bits which lace the movie like glutinous desserts ‒ were what appealed to me so. As the years progressed, the otherwise forgettable feature gradually grew into a cult classic. And it is truly hard to dismiss it as such, since, well, there really isn’t another movie like Burial Ground.

It starts with a brief pre-credit sequence in which a feller (who looks like he was part of the free love movement in Italy a few years before) inadvertently unleashes ‒ and is promptly eaten by ‒ an army unstoppable of hungry, flesh-eating, and surprisingly agile Etruscan zombies from their hidden tomb. From there, the movie jumps into a credit sequence complete with a swingin’ jazz score that owes perhaps more than just a passing inkling of credit to Charlie Parker’s “Take Five” as its uncredited source of inspiration.

In a way, this wonderfully bad lounge tune paves the way for the story’s assortment of unbelievably unintelligent heroes and heroines ‒ whose various peculiarities both in and out of the bedroom indicate these blue bloods are either very eccentric, or just very European.

Then there are those esteemed representatives of the living dead culture themselves. Clad in dirty, torn, single colored robes, this picture’s antagonists range from gruesome to goofy, complete with a few inexplicably young bucks who look as if they just jumped out of the makeup chair. (And I swear, one of those zombie extras is wearing a customized Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster mask!) But you have to give them credit: even without the ability to communicate (or even see, in some instances), these ancient Etruscans are able to put three automobiles out of commission and throw spikes like expert ninja.

Thankfully, their human nemeses aren’t smart enough to run away once The Nights of Terror (the actual onscreen title of the film) begin ‒ in broad daylight, mostly, ironically enough ‒ as not a single living character in the film has an ounce of brains. In any respect.

Nude female co-stars aside, the movie’s very dumb human element is most notable today for the bizarre casting of a 25-year-old male named Peter Bark (Pietro Barzocchini) as the 12-year-old son of actress Mariangela Giordano. Were Bark’s creepy diminutive looks not unsettling enough, his character’s incestuous fixation for his (frankly, hot) mother makes for two of European exploitation horror cinema’s most memorable (for all the wrong reasons) moments. (Yes, two.) In fact, were it not for the very odd Peter Bark (who only popped up in a few other moving pictures, all of which are obscure, before falling off the face of the earth for many moons) and his equally queer character, I highly doubt Burial Ground would be remembered at all today.

As if the explicit gore and outright strange relationships betwixt the movie’s truly unlikable characters not enough to cause one to lose the contents of their stomach right out, the execution of the film itself probably will. It doesn’t take long for the zombies to begin their reign of dismemberment and evisceration, mostly because director Andrea Bianchi producer Gabriele Crisanti removed what little character development there was and decided to get straight to the butchering bits. Going to great lengths to keep the camera rolling ‒ or, keeping the camera rolling for great lengths, as it were ‒ Bianchi’s sleazy splatterfest proves how boring a zombie movie can truly be if you skip the pleasantries and scoot right into the festivities: more than three-quarters of this bad 85-minute flick is what we would normally see in the last 20 minutes of a “good” one.

In short, this is Grade A fun for anyone who has acquired the taste for trashy European zombie movies, highlighted by the sounds of several great English voiceover artists of the time (Edward Mannix, Susan Spafford, Pat Starke, et al). Previously released to DVD and Blu-ray by Shriek Show/Media Blasters, Burial Ground makes a triumphant return to home media, this time from the folks at Severin Films, who recently brought another gory grindhouse classic to High-Definition: Doctor Butcher, M.D. (aka Zombi Holocaust). Unlike the previous US releases of this very guilty pleasure title, I’m proud to say Severin’s new addition to their great catalogue is the best it has ever looked. And while that may almost seem as ridiculous as the story itself, in this instance, it is saying a whole heck of a lot.

Culled from a new 2k scan (which may or may not be the same as one of the two cuts featured on UK label 88 Films’ release from earlier in 2016), this stellar new Blu-ray edition features a new shot-by-shot color correction, and appears to include all of the footage Shriek Show managed to slice out in their various SD/HD releases, each of which proved to be disappointing because of dropped frames, interlacing issues, etc.

Presented in a 1.66:1 presentation, the MPEG-4/AVC transfer shows the expected amount of grain for a low-budget ’80s Italian horror/softcore flick, but which never overpowers the onscreen “action.” What’s more, this release marks the first time the Italian audio track has been included, with the wonderfully bad English dub set as default. Both tracks are given the DTS-HD MA 2.0 treatment, and English subtitles are provided for the Italian soundtrack.

In terms of extras, Severin’s Burial Ground features several newly-produced goodies, beginning with Villa Parisi: Legacy of Terror, which takes us on a tour of the beautiful estate where the movie was filmed. Peter Still Lives ‒ a play on the bastard Italian sequel to the Aussie horror classic Patrick ‒ was filmed at a European Q&A after the elusive Peter Bark emerged from obscurity (only to discover he was “famous”). Just for the Money gives actor Simone Mattioli a chance to explain how he wound up in the feature in question. The Smell of Death: Interviews with Producer Gabriele Crisanti and Actress Mariangela Giordano is sort of a redux of the old Shriek Show bonus item, and contains archival chats with the aforementioned cast and crew members.

Wrapping up the undead nightmare here are two more items from the previous home video releases: an Italian-language trailer for the film (with English-language titles), and ten minutes of deleted/extended bits which didn’t make the final cut. Presented with musical cues but not any actual dialogue, it is extremely likely whatever gibberish these scenes were originally meant to contain weren’t recorded at all, as most Italian movies were filmed without sound and then dubbed over in post-production. Finally, this beloved cinematic abortion from Severin Films features reversible artwork, and the first 3,000 orders come with a bonus slipcover sporting a nice, alternate work of cover art. (An additional arsenal of extras are obtainable by ordering directly from the Severin Films website.)

Ultimately ‒ as I have alluded to only slightly throughout the bulk of this piece ‒ Burial Ground is a very bad movie. Every frame of the flick is coated in an unseen layer of sleaze, the acting is as bad as the half-assed story, and most anyone who has the misfortune of sitting through even a fraction of the tale will want to follow up the occasion with a nice long hot shower, complete with bleach and a Brillo pad. And yet, there is something strangely alluring about this disaster. Much like a bloody train wreck hypnotizes those who pass by it, Burial Ground pulls you in way under its coating of filth, daring you to be a part of the gory lunacy within ‒ rewarding you with absolutely nothing for your troubles in return. If there is such a thing as anti-art, this is it.

And yet, this quickly-shot, poorly-edited, low-budget wonder has managed to amass a number of devoted followers around the world, all of whom are eager to shout out “Mother, this cloth ‒ it smells of death!” right along with their favorite character. Because, after all, there isn’t another movie quite like Burial Ground.

Highly recommended, despite the lack of any redeeming values whatsoever.

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Luigi Bastardo

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