Plot: aristocratic vampire and his aides terrorize sleepy Filipino village.
Kulay dugo ang gabi (The Night Is the Color of Blood or Blood Is the Color of Night, Google Translate insists on the former, the cult blogosphere at large on the latter. Regardless, it was released internationally as The Blood Drinkers and, for a later reissue, The Vampire People) influenced by Universal horror films and the Hammer horrors of the day and, more importantly perhaps, is historic for being "the first color horror picture produced in the Philippines.” It was based on a serial komik (which one is a mystery to us at this point) from Hiwaga Komiks by Rico Bello Omagap and illustrator Jim Fernandez. Directed by Gerardo de León, produced by the Filipino Roger Corman, Cirio H. Santiago with his Premiere Productions in association with AM Productions for Hemisphere Pictures; The Blood Drinkers is a pompous partially in color gothic horror with that undeniable Southeast Asian flavour and an all-star cast including Ronald Remy, Amalia Fuentes, and Celia Rodriguez. The Blood Drinkers might very well be the first Filipino vampire horror and is alternatively delightfully old-fashioned or completely campy. Before the Blood Island saga brought Filipino madness to grindhouses around the world, there was The Blood Drinkers.
Gerardo “Gerry” Ilagan de León (or Gerardo de León) was a medical doctor who left the profession to start acting in 1934. After appearing in front of the camera for eight pictures he decided he was more at home behind it when he took up directing in 1939. During World War II de León produced a spate of anti-American propaganda films in alliance with the occupying Japanese forces. For this he was arrested, imprisoned, charged with treason, and sentenced to be executed by government officials. He was exonerated at the last minute when exculpatory evidence that he had aided the Filipino resistance surfaced. De Léon had directed Terror Is a Man (1959) - a fairly conservative (and semi-faithful) big screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island Of Dr. Moreau – just five years earlier. Not only did de León give the Philippines its first multi-part vampire epic, together with his erstwhile protégé Eddie Romero he contributed to the Blood Island saga by directing Brides of Blood (1968) and Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1969) for Hemisphere Pictures. His career spanned an impressive four decades before grinding to a halt in 1976. He was the most awarded director in Filipino history winning seven FAMAS Awards (three of them consecutively) from 1952 to 1971. In 1982 he was posthumously bestowed the title of National Artist by the Order of National Artists of the Philippines for his contributions to the development of Philippine art. His enduring legacy and cultural importance was reflected when the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in association with the Philippine Postal Corporation ran a limited line of commemorative stamps in 2013.
Ronald Remy would later play Dr. Lorca in de León’s Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968). He was nominated for a FAMAS (Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences) Award for Best Actor but lost to Joseph Estrada (who would form the Movie Workers Welfare Foundation or Mowelfund in 1974 as well as the Metro Manila Film Festival in 1975 and would later serve as the Mayor of Manila and as the 13th president of the Philippines from 1998 to 2001). Remy would later turn to directing himself. Likewise was Amalia Fuentes nominated for a FAMAS Award for Best Actress for her Barbare Steele-esque double role but lost to Marlene Daudén. Fuentes was dubbed the "Queen of Philippine Movies" and the “Elizabeth Taylor of the Philippines” by fans and critics alike and starred in over 130 films. In the '60s Asia Magazine crowned her “Asia’s Most Beautiful Actress” and in 1964 she became the first-ever Filipina of Lux bath soap. All through the 1960s to the end of the 1970s she wrote, produced, starred (and sometimes directed) in the films she made with her own production company AM (Amalia Muhlach) Productions. She also served as a member of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) and was one of the highest paid actresses of her generation. Celia Rodriguez on the other hand did win a FAMAS Award for Best Supporting Actress. Implacable pulp pillar Vic Díaz lends only his voice this time around and was last seen around these parts in Naked Fist (1981) and Raw Force (1982). Consider this the Filipino The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) or The Monster of the Opera (1964) and a precursor to Spain’s Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), replete with all the heaving bosoms and religious overtones you’d want. Not strange then that this won FAMAS Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.
After an unspecified time abroad local member of nobility (and landowner) Doña Marissa (Mary Walter) has returned to her native Philippines to arrange a heart transplant for her daughter Katrina (Amalia Fuentes). Since she was only able to take one daughter abroad she left her identical twin sister Charito (Amalia Fuentes) in care of poor peasants Elias (Paquito Salcedo) and Losela (Felisa Salcedo). During her time away Marissa has fallen in with the vampire cult led by Katrina’s bald physician (and lover) Dr. Marco (Ronald Remy) who will oversee the procedure. Marissa has promised Marco to arrange a suitable donor for Katrina’s procedure. Who a better candidate for said transplant than her estranged twin sister Charito? Marco is madly in love with the ailing Katrina but this does not stop his assistant Tanya (Celia Rodriguez) from vying for his affections. The arrival of Dr. Marco and his entourage (including the hunchback Gordo and a midget, both mute) coincide with a spate of exsanguinations of nubile village maidens in the surrounding jungle. Charito is courted by the suave and metropolitan Victor de la Cruz (Eddie Fernandez) while her best friend Ruben (Renato Robles) has an unrequited love for her. When her foster parents are brutally slain in a nocturnal vampire assault Doña Marissa offers to take Charito in now that she’s functionally a warden of the state. Thanks to her social and political sway Marissa is able to obfuscate, inveigle, and deceive local authorities. Only the pious village priest (Andres Benitez, with the voice of Vic Díaz) is able to see through the aristocrats’ deception and recognize the situation for what it truly is. Will the priest’s belief and the combined power of Charito’s friends be enough to withstand and ward off the vampyric threat that has consumed their sleepy peasant village?
In age-old gothic horror tradition The Blood Drinkers is a morality play on good and evil and a very Catholic one at that. If the heavy-handed narration doesn’t make it clear, the continual religious iconography certainly will (or should). What this most resembles is a very loose retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The main plot recreates most of the key events and each lead character has a book counterpart and is true to their respective arc. Dr. Marco is Count Dracula, Charito and Katrina are Elisabeta and Mina Murray Harker, Victor de la Cruz and Ruben are Jonathan Harker, Tanya and Doña Marissa are R. M. Renfield, and the priest as Professor Abraham Van Helsing. The Living Corpse (1967) from director Khwaja Sarfraz did the unlicensed adaptation thing a lot smoother than de León and Cesar Amigo do here. The Living Corpse (1967) is even more impressive considering it was made in Pakistan. More than anything the color scheme is what ensured this its cinematic longevity. Since color stock was in short supply in the Philippines and thus too expensive to use carelessly The Blood Drinkers was shot alternately in color and black-and-white (later tinted in hues of blue, pink, red, magenta). Not only does this color-coding greatly enhance the atmosphere, it actually has a contextual function. Whenever Marco appears - or whenever the vampires prey on their victims and dread rises - the screen will be painted red (characters will even break the fourth wall and exclaim “It’s all red!”), suspenseful scenes are dyed in blue with pink and magenta appearing for the character scenes in between. There are scenes in color, but they are far and few, and headscratchingly random. A harana ensemble has an entire dedicated color segment for their nightside courtship serenade, a young maiden is exsanguinated in the jungle by Marco but the kill is not in color whereas the immediate aftermath is. It truly boggles the mind. The score from Tito Arevalo is suitably bombastic, portentious, and creaky. Oh yeah, there’s even a rubber bat on a string that the American distributors loved. As always, the original Tagalog version (with subtitles) is preferable but the edited international English-language version is charming in its own dim-witted American way.
Perhaps there’s a point to be made that The Blood Drinkers might be a tad too quirky for some (where else are you going to see a bald vampire wearing cool sunglasses and alternatively dressing in a cape in one scene and in mod-fabulous attire in the other?) and for those who thought The Dracula Saga (1973) wasn’t insane enough or for whom Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969) didn’t have enough family dysfunction and all the attendant melodramatics, this will certainly tide you over. The Blood Drinkers contains some of the biggest names of the First Golden Age of Filipino weird cinema, both in front and behind the camera. If this gives you the occassional The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) vibe, you’re not wrong. While not overtly comical there are several things (the sunglasses, the rubber bat, the bad wigs, the dubbing, et al), whether intended that way or not, that the ensuing six decades have made unintentionally funny. Regardless of the kitsch (again, your mileage on that may vary) The Blood Drinkers stands as a monument of Pinoy cult cinema. It helped usher in an era of prosperity of domestic exploitation cinema and saw its domestic features exported around the world. The Philippines and its exploitation industry became so attractive during the wicked and wild 1970s and the decadent 1980s that the island all but was a second home for American, Italian and other foreign exploitation moguls. Two years later it was graced with the even better spiritual sequel Blood of the Vampires (1966). While Terror Is a Man (1959) was certainly the true pioneer, The Blood Drinkers put the Philippines on the international pulp cinema map – and for that reason alone it has more than earned its place in exploitation history.