Given that, it's still a pretty enjoyable affair. A troupe of entertainers get invited to a creepy old castle to perform for Count Drago (Christopher Lee), and his glamourous assistant Sandro (Mirko Valentin). You'd think that as soon as they saw Christopher Lee in a castle with a disturbed looking butler type, that they'd leg it sharpish. Do people never learn? But for dramatic purposes they stay and soon enough people start dying. Hooray.
I thought that the dodgy butler was called Sandra for about half of the film which make me chuckle. But there are many more laughs to be had. Most of which are not intentional. I think I've ranted before about people suspending their belief and giving old special effects a chance, such as stop-motion animation. But here the effects are so poor, my belief was most definitely unsuspended. Here's an example: a cat is given some poison that causes it to instantly stop in a rigid fashion. Now, I'd have thought that a stuffed cat type prop would have been the order of the day. The camera could have moved round the cat and it would have been fairly convincing. They actually achieve this effect by freeze framing the film. And the cat's not even in focus. It looks shocking.
What the film does well is atmosphere. There is something about old horror films that seems more horrifying than more contemporary examples. The period setting maybe helps, recalling the only interesting history lessons that I can remember: the ones about executions and people being hanged, drawn and quartered. As I was watching, The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General sprang to mind. Interestingly, this was written by a certain Michael Reeves, the director of the latter film. Due to the atmosphere, I found one scene involving a hanging quite unpleasant and more disturbing than Jason hacking off some fellow's protuberance.
Lee and Valentin make a fantastic evil double act. Valentin especially lurks around looking as though he wants to do very morally dubious things with his victims. He's got a premium quality evil laugh too. The other characters all pale into insignificance next to these two. Donald Sutherland makes an appearance but gets very little screen time. Not enough to make an impact. (He still gets his face on the DVD cover though, I can't think why...)
Christopher Lee explains the title during the course of the film, and despite the fact that there aren't any literal members of the living dead, I can see where he's coming from. Enough, to let them off and include this in our Year of the Dead. It's nowhere near as good as the two films mentioned previously but it's a passable way to spend an hour and a half. A good late night film.
If you like this you could also try:
The Plague of the Zombies, Witchfinder General, The Haunting (1963)