In the film PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, there is an undeniable creeping dread, a very real sense of terror, in every scene. Despite the obvious lack of money, Bava wrung some eerie, disturbing imagery out of his sf schlock piece. Considering this is an Italian production of the mid-60s, director Bava infuses some real originality into his story, taking a 1950s crew of square-jawed astronauts and forcing them to confront the future of horror: a horde of gore-streaked zombies, an omnipresent supernatural force invading the crew’s minds, and a nihilistic ending.
What is great about POTV stems from Bava, his dynamic camera, and his framing. The marooned spacecraft atop a craggy hillside, approached by rescuing astronauts, looks like a haunted house against the black-clouded sky of the planet. When the living dead begin stalking the pitted, fiery surface of the planet, intent on killing the astronauts, Bava effectively uses the new horror icons of fear: not of fear, but of zombiefication, of characters who could be us, once just human, but now horribly returned as mutilated living corpses set to kill friends and family.
PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES is exciting, arresting in places, and nuanced in small ways even by the actors involved, all of them physically fit with numerous fight scenes. Sullivan and Bengall aren’t creating their
characters, but they react realistically as human beings in an increasingly hopeless situation. The final scenes, of the
astronauts attempt to escape the planet, set upon by the living dead, have a psychological edge to go along with the action, as these noble travelers overcome their fear of the planet, of the zombies, and the horrible prospect of becoming zombies themselves, in order to end the hungering menace all around them. These scenes predate the best of George Romero’s DEAD films or any John Carpenter flick, where a group of survivors are whittled down to just a few, and then to one, by a wave of seemingly unstoppable supernatural force.
It should be noted that “vampires” refer to parasites, not classic monsters, and truly this is more of a “zombie” film than a “vampire” movie. The film Bava made is gory and violent for 1965 when it was released, and as interesting as it was then, it’s just as interesting now to see how POTV influenced later horror-film greats, not only in theory but in execution. And it’s still better than 95 percent of the recent Hollywood sf-horror films of the past decade, bar none.