I first saw CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964) in the early 1980s when I was in high school late on a Saturday night on my local UHF channel— Channel 56 in Boston— on their Creature Feature broadcast. Channel 56 used to show the Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons, but then they would also show a solo horror flick usually after 11 pm on Saturday nights under the moniker Creature Feature. Way back when, these films were a major highlight of my weekends.
I immediately noticed two things about CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD upon that first viewing all those years ago. One, although it starred Christopher Lee, it was clear that it was made on a much lower budget than the Hammer Films of the period, and two, there was something incredibly mesmerizing about it.
One of the major reasons it was so captivating then and remains so today is that it was shot on location at a real castle, the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi in Italy, and also at the rock garden in Bomarzo, Italy, which contains monstrous and weird statues, which are used to full effect in the movie. With the nonstop whistling wind in the background, there is an authenticity to this movie that remains its best attribute. You will truly feel as if you are right there with the characters spending a night at the Castle of the Living Dead.
The film also boasts a decent story.
A group of circus entertainers in 19th century France happen upon a strange castle occupied by the mysterious Count Drago (Christopher Lee) who invites them to spend the night. Nothing unusual here in terms of story, except that Count Drago is housing a terrible secret. No, he’s not a vampire, but he does have an unusual hobby that his guests are sure not to enjoy.
CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is also the beneficiary of some atmospheric direction by Warren Kiefer, an American filmmaker who went to Italy to pursue his film career. Kiefer also wrote the script. Some prints also list Herbert Wise as the director, a pseudonym for Kiefer’s assistant director Luciano Ricci. This was done because the film was a French-Italian co-production, and for tax reasons, the Italian version needed an Italian director.
Further complicating matters regarding just who directed CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is that Michael Reeves, the young British director who would go on to make a name for himself directing the well-regarded Vincent Price movie THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) (aka WITCHFINDER GENERAL) before dying unexpectedly a year later, was part of Kiefer’s crew, and rumors have spread over the years that it was Reeves who largely directed CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD.
But most of these rumors have since been debunked by others on the set, and so today by most accounts it’s believed that it was Warren Kiefer who directed this movie.
Again, the best part about CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is its atmosphere. With its grainy black and white photography, at times it looks raw and real, while at others it appears almost dreamlike, the whole thing more akin to Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) than a Hammer Film. It’s creaky and it’s creepy, which is a good thing, because in terms of action and horror, not a lot happens in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, which is a major reason why it’s not considered a classic of horror cinema.
Kiefer also does a nice job photographing Christopher Lee here, as with the deep dark circles under his eyes, he resembles someone with a serious drug addiction. The way Lee is photographed in this move reminds me a lot of the way Bela Lugosi looked in WHITE ZOMBIE (1932).
That being said, Count Drago is not of one Lee’s strongest performances. Count Drago is not an evil character like Count Dracula. He’s more manipulative and neurotic a la Norman Bates. In fact, they share similar hobbies. Lee somewhat captures this about Drago, but he’s not altogether successful here. Indeed, it may not all be Lee’s fault. He said in interviews that during this movie in the post-sync stage, he had to dub his own lines without the benefit of having a script because no one had written down the movie’s dialogue on paper. Oops!
The other major star to appear in CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is Donald Sutherland. In one of his first movie appearances, Sutherland actually plays three roles: a young soldier, an old man, and a witch. He’s most memorable as the creaky old witch. The witch’s line, “Some will live. And some will die,” will stay with you long after you’ve seen this movie.
Sutherland got along so famously with director Warren Kiefer that he named his son after him, which is how actor Kiefer Sutherland got his name.
CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is not a classic of low-budget horror cinema. It doesn’t quite have enough going for it to reach that level. However, it is much better than critics have given it credit for.
It plays more like a drama— think the Charles Laughton version of Victor Hugo’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)— that evolves into a horror tale, with traces of PSYCHO (1960) and low-budget foreign cinema, evoking the same kind of flavor and deadly charm as films like MANEATER OF HYDRA (1967) but shot in black and white without any serious blood and gore.
CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is all about atmosphere, and as such, it does not disappoint.
In the dead of winter, when everything seems cold and lifeless, there comes a barren castle occupied by Count Drago, a castle where all who visit remain, because once its secrets are exposed, it’s revealed to be truly a CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD.