Horror is a conservative genre, and one of its enduring motifs is that of the Old Ways rising from their tombs to take a bite out of the Modern World. Thus, the ancient Indian burial ground often figures in American horror stories and movies, as do old, witch-haunted New England towns. In Mexican movies, the mummies of the ancient Aztecs (and the modern mummies of Guanajuato) would often come to life and terrorize the living. Spanish director Amando de Ossorio brought the Knights Templar from their tombs to terrorize his audience. And the Italians have their Etruscans.
Before the Roman Empire rose to supremacy, there was another highly advanced civilization on the Italian peninsula called Etruria. The Etruscans were known as a very religiously observant people, who lived by signs and prophecies; but they were also reviled by the other civilizations of the time for their excesses. Feasts and orgies occupied the lives of the Etruscan nobles, while their warriors engaged in brutal tactics of war, and their priesthood prepared human sacrifices. Gradually, as their culture went into decline, the Etruscans became gloomy and death-obsessed. They began to decorate their tombs with frightful visions of demons and monsters. Today, almost the only records we have of the Etruscans from their own telling come from their funerary inscriptions.
So it's only natural that these mysterious, mystical, cruel ancestors should inspire many Italian horror movies -- The Etruscan Kills Again, for example, or Murder in the Etruscan Cemetery -- which the Etruscans themselves might have enjoyed.
On the other hand, I'm surprised the Etruscans don't come pouring out of their graves to devour Andrea Bianchi, the man responsible for Notti del Terrore/Nights of Terror/Burial Ground/Zombie 4. We devotees of Italian horror are used to awful scripts, but this one sinks lower into the mire than even archaeology can dig.
The pre-credit sequence introduces a man with a long black beard, wearing a cheap, ill-fitting cardigan. One look at him and you can hear Crow T. Robot in the front row of your mind: "Santa Claus -- the early years!" This man is the enigmatic Professor Ayres, who is excavating all by himself on the grounds of an Italian estate.
A note for those of us who have the American Vestron Video print: yes, it is an Italian estate. For some reason, the box notes refer to the movie as taking place in Scotland. Then again, the box notes also call the movie "so gruesomely realistic you have to see it to believe it," leading me to conclude that no-one at Vestron has ever actually seen the movie.
Anyway, the Professor has uncovered some shocking secret from the ancient tombs he is exploring. This secret isn't revealed to us until the last shot of the film, in which the titles quote the "Profesy [sic] of the Black Spider" as saying that the moon will turn red, the dead will rise, and then will begin the "nigths [sic] of terror". You see why they held out on us? If they'd revealed this terrifying "profesy" at the beginning of the film, everybody would have walked out, disgusted.
The Professor goes out to the tombs, by himself, in the dead of night -- the way all good archaeology is done. While he's busy chipping away at some irreplaceable ancient inscription, a bunch of extras in Crusty Old Dead Guy Suits attack him and drag him off. Now, if I were an Etruscan zombie, I'd probably beat him up, too: I'd have mistaken him for an ancient Assyrian with that implausible beard of his.
So much for the appetizer. On the rest of the menu for tonight: a voluptous near-middle-aged woman; her wealthy new husband; her odd, progeric son Oedipus... er, Michael...; and two couples who are friends of theirs. They've all come to the new husband's dreary estate to spend the weekend.
Once they get there, all sorts of trouble begins. Decayed hands reach up from the earth, and up pops a hideous walking corpse with worms in its eye! A woman gets her eye poked out in the shards of a broken window! The...
This seems awfully familiar. In fact, it's obviously a rip-off of Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2, which had been released the year before! Fulci's detractors should watch Bianchi's movie to see how capable and professional a director Fulci really was. In Bianchi's film, we have many of the same set pieces as Fulci's, but they are so badly executed that their entertainment value is near zero.
Thinking of Fulci, it seems that Giannetto de Rossi, the makeup wizard responsible for some of Fulci's most memorable zombies, was also in charge of effects for Notti del Terrore. The usually excellent de Rossi is nowhere near the top of his form in Bianchi's flick. His creatures look like they're wearing immensely thick plaster (or sometimes rubber) masks. In no scene are they convincing, and in any case, the poor quality of Vestron's video print makes everything look even dimmer and grainier than it must have been in the original.
The most disturbing part of the movie -- more disquieting than the cheesy walking dead, more nauseating than the occasional gut-munching scenes, and more frightening than anything that might masquerade as "suspense" in this movie -- is Michael, The Boy. He's small, and frail, and he looks older than his mother. I'm assuming they hired an older actor with some sort of glandular problem, since The Boy has to do something I doubt any legitimate director would ever ask a child actor to do: after a zombie attack, he attempts to molest his mother.
That scene should have you running for the door, if nothing else has. But it's not over! It actually gets smarmier! The Boy gets eaten by a zombie, but he returns at the climax. Mom is (stupidly) overjoyed to see him again, and she offers him her breast to suckle. The Boy chews it off.
NIPPLE ALERT: Please note that this abysmal movie was scripted by Piero Regnoli, co-scriptor of the equally stupid Incubo sulla Città Contaminata/City of the Walking Dead. In that film, there's another pointless (if less revolting) gratuitous nipple dismemberment.
I don't want to be too rough on Regnoli. He did work with Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava on I Vampiri, and the late films he co-wrote for Lucio Fulci, Demonia and Voci dal Profondo, have their good moments, too. But I'm still beginning to think that Regnoli's movies should come with a warning label: