Review: Castle of the Living Dead / Il castello dei morti vivi (18) / Directed by: Luciano Ricci ('Warren Kiefer'), Lorenzo Sabatini ('Herbert Wise'), Michael Reeves (uncredited) / Written by: Michael Reeves and Lorenzo Sabatini / Starring: Christopher Lee, Gaia Germani, Phillipe Leroy, Donald Sutherland / Release date: Out now
Although many of the 'Golden Age of Italian Horror' Gothics are now available to us on DVD (albeit mostly in the form of Region 1 NTSC releases), 1964's Castle of the Living Dead has long remained a missing link in many a Eurohorror fanatic's collection. And, for fans of that era, the film is indeed an enticing proposition, featuring as it does the eminently collectible Christopher Lee, Eurocult fave Philippe (The Frightened Woman) Leroy, and Donald Sutherland in his first three film roles. It also marks the first film credit of Witchfinder General wunderkind Michael Reeves, here at the tender age of twenty, just five years before his tragic barbiturate overdose. With so many points of cineaste interest, it's a pity that the film is finally revealed by this vanilla but pristine disc from Odeon Entertainment to be something of a letdown.
In the early nineteenth century, a roguish troupe of circus performers is lured with the promise of gold to the remote castle of one Count Drago (Lee, of course), there to provide a private performance of their travelling show. They soon find themselves getting knocked off one by one by Drago's sinister assistant Sandro, as played by Mirko Valentin (the gaunt actor who a year earlier had featured (uncredited) as 'The Living Skull' in Antonio Margheriti's The Virgin of Nuremberg, also alongside Lee). But no simple murders are these; it transpires that Drago intends to preserve them all for eternity as 'living statues' with a serum that he has invented. In particular, for some reason, the exceptionally attractive Laura (Gaia Germani, fresh from Lucio Fulci's The Maniacs).
Whilst not without cultish charm, Castle comes up pretty short when compared with many other Gothics of the period. The obviously minuscule budget doesn't help matters. However, as with many such films, the location filming in and around a 100% genuine Gothic castle ensures that it at least looks and feels right by default. The main problem is that there's no real engagement with the characters; the troupe of players seem too dopey and Count Drago is one of Lee's sillier and less frightening villains.
Those Sutherland-spotting will be amused and entertained to see Donald in three different roles. Over the course of the film he plays a soldier and, briefly, an old man, but has much more screen time in drag and heavy make-up (and rather good make-up at that) as a gruesome old witch. Donald was so grateful to Luciano Ricci for giving him his first movie credit that he named his son 'Kiefer' after the director's pseudonym for the film. At the beginning we see said Donald-witch roam the countryside and randomly murder a couple of people, which is a bit odd considering the role that she has later in the story.
Although Reeves was only credited as second unit director, it's widely believed that he directed a number of scenes, including that where the troupe's dwarf (also uncredited) fights Sandro on the battlements. On the whole, Castle is definitely a lower-tier entry in the Italian Gothic cycle, but makes for a desirable collector's piece for Eurohorror fiends, made all the more so by some gorgeous specially commissioned box art from Graham Humphreys (above) and liner notes by Benjamin Halligan.
Extras: Trailer, Liner Notes by Benjamin Halligan.