Written by: Gabriel Moreno Burgos, Vicente Aranda, and Joaquim Jordà
Directed by: León Klimovsky
Starring: Alberto de Mendoza , Paul Naschy, and Teresa Gimpera
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Look at them--fanatics in their struggle for earth."
"The same as us."
"The same as us."
About twenty years ago, I came across The People Who Own the Dark in John McCarty’s Official Splatter Movie guide, and, ever since, I’ve assumed it to be another Spanish riff on Night of the Living Dead. Instead, it has more in common with The Crazies, though I suspect this was due to a budget that was too tight to afford proper zombie make-up more than anything. Still, it’s sort of a zombie movie in the same way all of these films are “zombie movies” since it predictably boils down to a bunch of survivors fending off a ravenous horde. In this case, though, it’s almost as if someone had the bright idea to imagine what a Romero movie would have looked like if it were mostly populated by assholes.
A bunch of distinguished and prominent guys and gals have decided to take a weekend retreat in the Spanish countryside. This in and of itself doesn’t make them assholes, but it turns out that they intend to spend the whole weekend engaged in hedonistic orgies inspired by Marquis de Sade. With a small brothel of hookers at their disposal, nothing short of a nuclear strike is going to get in the way of this debauchery. Unfortunately, an atomic bomb does drop in the nearby vicinity--but apparently not close enough to kill them or even devastate the nearby landscape. Instead, it just manages to turn the locals into blind, violent people who want to destroy the other survivors.
I’d say this one was a disappointment after hearing about it so many years ago, but, honestly, it’d been in the recesses of my mind until Code Red released it on DVD earlier this year. Having finally seen it, I suspect it’ll return there shortly, as The People Who Own the Dark is a thuddingly generic Euro-horror offering that has many of that genres flaws without carrying many of its charms. Wildly misogynist, underwritten, and with a paucity of scares, atmosphere, and budget, it’s really nothing more than a warmed over Blind Dead rehash where the Knights Templar have been replaced by a bunch of extras wearing blindfolds and sunglasses. Apparently contacts weren’t in the budget, but, then again, not much was. While León Klimovsky secured a hell of a location--the mansion where most of the film takes place is ominous, craggy, gothic, and dank--he fails to fill it with anything that’s all that compelling.
There are plenty of horrible people to behold, though. Zombie films typically feature antagonistic characters meant to cause friction within the group, which almost always serves to reinforce the notion that we’re our own worse enemy--not the undead. The People Who Own the Dark takes this idea, runs about ten miles with it, then runs back for good measure; almost everyone deserves everything they have coming to them, and they’re not even squabbling over the typical zombie movie stuff, like what approach they should be taking to ride out the apocalypse. Instead, they get homicidal over a decision to help out some locals in the nearby village; even worse, fellow survivors borrowing a car is cause for grabbing the nearest rifle. Given that this set is comprised of a bunch of self-admitted hedonists, this is hardly surprising, but there’s no accompanying commentary or nuance. These are unabashedly bad people, and their pseudo-aristocratic status seems incidental more than anything; of course, it’s hard to ignore the coincidental subtexts that arrive when these guys are being assaulted by the peasantry, but there’s little depth to this.
As such, People Who Own the Dark is just another stuffy, grungy cash-in, filled with the typically wacky Euro flourishes and tone-deafness to make it just worthwhile enough. Klimovsky has a quick (and arbitrary) zoom trigger finger, and there’s a few unintentionally amusing moments, including the old “we better bang because we don’t know how much time we have left” awkward love scene, and the script reveals its laziness early on when the nuclear bomb explanation is accepted by the survivors because a scientist (Alberto de Mendoza) is among them and he would know (viewers certainly can’t be sure since no one bothered to even feature any insert footage--instead, the “bomb” is realized by the set shaking a little bit). Even gore and elaborate make-up effects didn’t make the cut; in fact, the masks the guys wear to their de Sade banquet are more imposing and weird looking than the “zombies” in the film.
It’s too bad because all of this comes at the expense of a wildly great cast that’s composed of a bunch of familiar faces; Spanish horror king Paul Naschy is the headliner, but he’s more of a secondary character. He’s arguably the primary asshole though--he’s the one who starts taking shots with the rifle when someone borrows his car, plus he’s got no qualms about sacrificing his fellow survivors to ensure his own safety. De Mendoza is actually the lead and probably the closest thing to a likable character; when Naschy starts firing at the people who “borrowed” his car, De Mendoza is quick to point out that they have plenty of cars, and he’s a generally level-headed person. Of course, he also kind of blows off his responsibilities to party with these assholes in the first place, so it’s a bit of a wash. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the likes of Teresa Gimpera, Antonio Mayans, Julia Saly, and Ricardo Palacios (whose character goes nuts and begins acting like a dog in one of those delightful flourishes), all of whom appeared in other cult films that were better than this one.
One of the film’s most damning qualities was its delayed U.S. release; while it was released in its native land in 1976, it didn’t find American shores until 1980, where it must have seemed completely perfunctory in the wake of Dawn of the Dead and Zombie. Sean Cunningham’s name was attached to this release, but he’s apparently disavowed this (and if Sean Cunningham doesn’t want to be associated with a movie, that might be its most damning quality). It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that it’s been rare ever since, and Code Red’s release is its first DVD release. As is sometimes the case with Code Red, the presentation is a little roughshod, but the company itself provides a fair warning that the elements are abused, scratched, beat-up, and have “gone vinegar”; the menu itself amusingly refers to this as the “Grindhouse presentation,” which is about right--not only is there a bunch of print damage to put up with, but some of the scenes are missing frames, and a persistent buzzing and humming accompanies the audio. To its credit, Code Red managed to secure a print that was still vibrant, but this cut also chops off a few minutes of the run-time. A complete version, taken from a 1 inch Sun Video tape, is also available, but its quality is much worse on the whole. The only special features are the film’s theatrical trailer and a look at other Code Red releases, but it’s not like anyone should expect a special edition of this film anytime in the near future. As such, The People Who Own the Dark is only for hardcore enthusiasts, especially since this release has already shown signs of going out of print (the Code Red store currently has copies for sale, but that might not last long). Rent it!
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