The Castle of the Living Dead – original title: Il Castello dei morti vivi – is a 1964 Gothic horror film, an Italian/French co-production written and directed by American Warren Kiefer.
It stars Christopher Lee as the sinister Count Drago who adds to his collection of embalmed corpses by murdering guests. Donald Sutherland made his film debut, in a triple role as both a police sergeant, a wizened witch and an old man.
The cast also features Philippe Leroy, Gaia Germani, Jacques Stany and horror genre regular Alan Collins (a.k.a. Luciano Pigozzi) as a troupe of travelling players who fall into the count’s clutches.
The film was shot in black-and-white, utilizing the Odescalchi Castle in Bracciano and the “Parco dei Mostri” in Bomarzo as principal locations.
Italian bureaucracy has led to much confusion over the director’s identity. Many sources claim that Warren Kiefer is a pseudonym for Lorenzo Sabatini, but Kiefer was actually an American novelist and aspiring director who moved to Italy in 1962, leaving behind his family and day job in public relations. He joined forces with fellow ex-patriot Paul Maslansky (Sugar Hill; Death Line; The She Beast) so they could take advantage of state subsidies and debut – as director and producer, respectively – on a low budget movie.
Kiefer later claimed that Lorenzo Sabatini was a pseudonym inspired by a 16th century painter: a necessary expedient because the project needed an Italian director to qualify for funding. Red tape meant that the Italian version eventually ended up with contradictory credits: “a film by Warren Kiefer” and “directed by Herbert Wise”. Herbert Wise is actually the anglicized pseudonym of Luciano Ricci. Kiefer is credited as director on all export prints, and Donald Sutherland named his son after him.
Future British director Michael Reeves (The She-Beast, The Sorcerers, Witchfinder General) was also part of the crew, but his contribution has apparently been grossly exaggerated over the years. Assistant director Frederick Muller has confirmed that Reeves only provided a handful of pick-up shots: nothing that would make a notable difference to the finished film.
“Castle of the Living Dead has a potentially interesting idea but is hamstrung by a muddled approach and sluggish pacing. Although the film is slow going at times, director Luciano Ricci is still able to build a modicum of atmosphere, especially during the scenes inside the titular castle. While the flick is drawn out a little too much and features more than it’s fair share of padding, Castle of the Living Dead remains worth a look for the performances alone.” Mitch Lovell, The Video Vacuum
“The cast is generally adequate, with Donald Sutherland providing most of the fun in his on-screen debut. He displays a skill for slapstick in his portrayal of the inept policeman, though it is mainly the makeup department that provides an effective characterization of the old woman. Christopher Lee’s typical restraint is refreshing as always.”Lawrence McCallum, Italian Horror Films of the 1960s
“The scenes with Lee, the basement laboratory littered with the remnants of mummification research, and most of the story for that matter are presented unimaginatively. But from the appearance of Lee’s scythe-wielding servant (Valentin) and the energetic dwarf (de Martino) who protects the threatened heroine (Germani), the film shifts into a different gear, achieving some genuinely disturbing scenes…” Phil Hardy (editor), The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror
“Typical Continental Gothic melodrama, notable only for Lee’s performance and Donald Sutherland’s first screen appearance.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook
” …as the panda-eyed Drago, Lee is more than his usual frosty self. His delighted laughter and applause during the troupe’s command performance is truly manic, and at the end, when stabbed with his own embalming scalpel by a vengeful witch, he enjoys one of his most memorable screen deaths […] As for Donald Sutherland, his turn as a local policeman is an engaging echo of Kiefer’s original comic intentions…” Jonathan Rigby, Euro Gothic
” …the premise is pretty cool (albeit kind of a let-down in light of the title), there are a few good performances that cut through the interference of the dubbing, and Castle of the Living Dead looks wonderful overall, despite obviously having been either shot on the shoddiest available film stock or processed by the most woefully inept development lab in Italy. No classic, but well worth a look.” Scott Ashlin, 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting
“The direction is awkward and the pacing choppy. One out of every three scenes is useless. No pretty women, no mysterious music. The count has some personality; he’s a troubled and contemplative man who doesn’t mean (much) harm. But other than him, only the energetic long-haired dwarf is fun to watch.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers
” …standard Gothic fare, distinguished only by the presence of Christopher Lee as a mad Count.” Monthly Film Bulletin, 1968
In the UK, the film was released by Tigon Films, playing on a double-bill with Barbara Steele vehicle Terror Creatures from the Grave. Tigon re-released it as a support feature for The Blood Beast Terror.
The film was released in 1965 in the United States where it was distributed by The Woolner Brothers.
Cast and characters:
- Christopher Lee as Count Drago
- Gaia Germani as Laura (Hercules in the Haunted World; Devil in the Brain)
- Philippe Leroy as Eric (Naked Girl Killed in the Park)
- Mirko Valentin as Sandro (The Virgin of Nuremberg)
- Donald Sutherland as Sgt. Paul / The witch / The old man (Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Don’t Look Now; Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors)
- Antonio De Martino as Nick, the dwarf
- Luciano Pigozzi as Dart (Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes; Baron Blood; Lycanthropus)
- Luigi Bonos as Marc (Frankenstein ‘80; The Evil Eye)
- Ennio Antonelli as Gianni
- Jacques Stany as Bruno (The Cat O’ Nine Tails)
- Renato Terra Caizzi as Policeman
Castello Orsini-Odescalchi and Bomarzo in Italy
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We are grateful to Chilling Scenes of Dreadful Villany for some of the images above.
Posted by Mark Ashworth, with additional images added by Adrian J Smith