Castle of the Living Dead is famous for two main reasons.
First, Donald Sutherland took his son Kiefer’s name from the film’s writer and co-director Warren Kiefer AKA Lorenzo Sabatini
Second, it represented the first credit for Michael Reeves, who co-wrote the film and apparently functioned as more than just second unit man; producer Paul Maslansky subsequently backed Reeves’s official directorial debut The She Beast the following year.
The Reeves connection is immediately apparent, as a scene-setting voice-off establishes a somewhat disordered situation that prefigures Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General.
First, we are told that Napoleon may have been defeated, but that demobbed soldiers have turned to banditry and made the roads unsafe.
Then we are told that executions of bandits are thereby commonplace, and presented with what seems to be one such scene. The incongruities are the victim’s dress – a harlequin’s motley, rather than a soldier’s uniform – and the souvenirs being sold by a dwarf.
The harlequin then contrives to have his would-be executioner put his own neck in the noose and kicks away the stool, much to the (anti-authoritarian) amusement of those gathered.
Next it is revealed that executioner and executee, along with the dwarf, are in fact part of a theatrical troupe and the whole thing was a gag.
They collect their money and go to the inn.
There, the leader of the troupe, Bruno, and the harlequin, Dart (Luciano Pigozzi), argue over money – another trope whose mundane quality seems very Reeves if we think of the impoverished circumstances of Karloff and Lacey’s couple in The Sorcerors or the discussions between Hopkins and Stearne – another arguing (homosexual) couple, perhaps – in Witchfinder General.
Eric (Philippe Leroy) intervenes as Dart is about to kill Bruno, leading to Dart fleeing on the ex-soldier’s horse. (Ian Ogilvy’s Richard Marshall is also a soldier in Witchfinder General.)
Turning a bad situation into an opportunity, Eric decides to join the troupe, just as they have been offered the chance of doing a private performance for Count Drago for three gold pieces – a tidy sum, apparently.
Watching this, and the similiarity with what unfolds, I wondered if the makers of the 2000 French fantastique entry Deep in the Woods had also seen Castle of the Living Dead.
The troupe travel to Drago’s castle, en route encountering a witch, played in drag by a young Donald Sutherland, who had earlier played a soldier/policeman at the hanging, who foretells doom should they go there.
Since the film wouldn’t get much further if they heeded said warnings, the troupe continues on, greed outweighing other considerations.
There they meet Drago, (Christoper Lee) who makes his entrance in the approved Dracula-esque manner and who proves to be equally suspicious in his behaviour, as when he offers Bruno a pre-performance drink:
Bruno: "Aren’t you having any?"
Drago: "Alas, no. I give it only to my guests."
Indeed, having imbibed the concoction, Bruno suffers a fatal ‘accident’ whilst performing the hanging routine…
More character driven than most 1960s Italian horrors, Castle of the Living Dead is unusual for its relatively low-key approach to evil. Drago has no grand designs for revenge or ruling the world. Instead, he just wants to be able to perform his dubious experiments in peace. His victims, meanwhile, are neither particularly heroic nor bent on vengeance. Instead they just want to make it out alive in one piece.
Adequately directed and nicely shot in black and white (Luigi Kuveiller was camera operator), the film is atmospheric and benefits from wry performances from Leroy, Lee and Mirko Valentin (as Lee’s henchman, Hans), while Gaia Germani as Laura makes for an unusually active and level-headed love-interest cum victim.