Ancient zombies get outshined by their littlest victim.
I first saw the 1981 film Le Notti del terrore (also known by the titles Burial Ground, The Nights of Terror, or The Zombie Dead) when it was screened several movies into an all-night theatrical horror marathon. I had no idea what to expect. The guy who was sitting next to me did. He had already seen the movie and wasn't a fan. Growing too sleepy to continue with the marathon, he decided to leave as soon as Burial Ground began. I stuck around and stayed awake, and felt rewarded for it.
One of many Italian zombie movies that were made in the wake of George A. Romero's 1978 success with Dawn of the Dead, Burial Ground is the most popular film to be directed by Andrea Bianchi, who was working from a screenplay by the incredibly prolific writer Piero Regnoli (there are more than 110 writing credits on Regnoli's filmography).
The story is dirt simple, the set-up conveyed in broad strokes. On the property of a gated estate in the Italian countryside are tombs holding the bodies of ancient Etruscans. A magnificently bearded professor has made this property the focus of his research into the magic the Etruscans performed, something to do with the "survival of the dead". The professor has just made a breakthrough when the long-dead Etruscans - desiccated, clothed in rags, crawling with worms and maggots - rise as zombies and tear him to pieces.
Before his death, the professor had called in the owner of the estate so he could tell him what he had discovered, although it's not clear just how the owner was connected to the professor and his research. The day after the professor's death, the estate's owner arrives at his mansion with his new wife Evelyn, her young son Michael, and two other couples in tow.
The absence of the professor is odd, but since he's not there the couples decide to use their time in the country to do a whole lot of fooling around. During their first night at the mansion, one of the women has a prescient dream and, knowing awful things are about to happen, tries to get her boyfriend to take her away from there immediately. He gets her to calm down and agree to stay... a terrible mistake.
The good times come to a screeching the next day when those zombie Etruscans make their way out of their tomb and begin attacking every living person they cross paths with.
Soon the vacationers and the mansion staff are trapped in the house by the horde of flesh-eaters, forced to endure a horrifying night of the living dead. I mean, a night of terror.
The zombies look awesome and the effects are executed well, but if the movie contained nothing beyond the zombies terrorizing and tearing into the adult cast of characters, the movie probably wouldn't have attained as much of a cult following as it has over the years. Sure, the death scenes are cool, like the one in which the zombies nail a character in place with a thrown chisel so they can slowly decapitate her with a scythe. Sure, the adults deliver some fun, howlingly bad lines of dialogue. But the true shining element of this film is young Michael.
Although he's presumably of grade school age, Michael is actually played by a short adult named Peter Bark, who was in his mid-twenties at the time and is obviously not really a child. Even his lines are dubbed by an adult trying to soften his voice, to laughable effect, especially since Michael is always calling out for his "Mama!"
The kid is a creep, and Bianchi shoots him in the same way as he shoots the zombies. There are frequent zooms in on maggot-ridden zombie faces, and there are frequent zooms in on Michael's face and his "this kid ain't right" expressions.
You see, Michael has an unhealthy preoccupation with his mama. While the other characters try to keep the zombies at bay and survive the night, there's an Oedipal drama playing out between Michael and Evelyn. His desire to get back to his mama's breast continues even after he has become one of the dead.
Without Michael, Burial Ground would be a forgetabble distraction. It's this twisted man-child, and his lines like "Mama! This cloth smells of death!", who makes the movie memorable, funny, and worth revisiting from time to time. Because of him, my reaction to that marathon screening back in the day was, "I need that movie on DVD." Any time a marathon I attend screens Burial Ground again (and I did get to see the movie at a drive-in marathon sometime later), I won't be skipping it.