It’s a cryin’ shame that this terrific and appropriately-atmospheric take on the oft-tapped Dracula legend has been routinely criticized as a ‘dog’ (pun intended) by many who have seen it. In actuality though, Albert Band’s ZOLTAN… HOUND OF DRACULA (1977) is an inventive, affectionate tip-of-the-hat to vampire films, a horror subgenre which, during the ’Seventies, was definitely going through some changes, adapting to more contemporary tastes of the time, as seen in such memorable genre entries as Stephanie Rothman’s THE VELVET VAMPIRE (1971), William Crain’s self-explanatory-titled BLACULA (1972) and, of course, Bob Kelljan’s Yorga duology, COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) and THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971). Also known as DRACULA’S DOG, the present film’s rather-less-appealing and sillier-sounding alternate title, ZOLTAN has been lovingly resurrected thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ wonderful new Blu-ray release.
Randomly—if effectively—jumbling-together elements from both B-grade war movies and vampire lore, ZOLTAN’s jam-packed opening sees the Romanian Army accidentally uncovering Dracula’s tomb during a routine training mission. Just one soldier (played by Dimitri Logothetis, the future director of SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK ) is ordered to stand guard at the gravesite for the night and—you guessed it!—this lone sentry foolishly decides to remove the immobilizing wooden stake from Zoltan, Dracula’s omnipresent pet Doberman pinscher, who, albeit for centuries, proves to be merely ‘playing dead’ (pun intended). In turn, Zoltan diligently raises Dracula’s creepy undead slave Veidt Smit (Reggie Nalder), who is intent on bringing his long-dead master Dracula (Michael Pataki) back to unlife (not coincidentally, Pataki had previously sported fangs in John Hayes’ drive-in/grindhouse fave GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE ). With the help of the perceptive Major Hessel (Arlent Martel), determined Inspector Branco (José Ferrer), who is an expert in such matters (“In this part of the country, everytomb interests me!”), quickly deduces that Dracula’s last living descendent, Michael Drake (Pataki again) is now living in Los Angeles with his young family. Since Smit and Zoltan (quote) “cannot exist without their master”, Inspector Branco also travels overseas to try and stop Veidt Smit at (quote) “all costs!”
While vacationing at Lake Arrowhead with his wife (Jan Shutan), two children (John Levin and Libby Chase) as well as their pet German shepherd dogs Samson and Annie and their new litter, Michael is keen to escape the city life. However, he quickly discovers that something is amiss at their usually serene lakeside campsite… Here playing the sinister Veidt, Reggie Nalder is appropriately menacing (he even travels in an ominous black hearse, which houses Zoltan’s specially-designed coffin) as he quietly enables a number of local dogs to fall victim to Zoltan’s fanged bite (“Now he’s one of us!”); a succession of canine victims that also includes an unfortunate human tourist, in what amounts to the film’s goriest and most alarming scene. As the ‘undead’ dog-pack steadily multiplies in numbers, Band’s genre-hopping film also takes on similarities to any number of ‘nature-run-amok’ films, as the vampirized and increasingly powerful animals terrorize the entire National Park, and it’s easy to imagine that both Burt Brinckerhoff’s DOGS (1976) and Robert Clouse’s THE PACK (1977) were some sort of an influence on Band’s film.
Written by Frank Ray Perilli—who, tellingly enough, also wrote Byron Ross Chudnow’s matinee favourite THE DOBERMAN GANG (1972)—ZOLTAN… HOUND OF DRACULA also focuses much of its attention on its four-legged co-stars. This, of course, means plenty of intimidating insert shots of Zoltan baring his elongated eyeteeth while snarling ferociously into the camera (often with his eyes diabolically glowing!) while he licks his bloodied chops. Portraying a genuinely vicious servant of Dracula, the film’s ‘mad dog’ scenario is actually closer in spirit to Stephen King’s much-celebrated novel Cujo (Viking Press, 1981) and Lewis Teague’s superb 1983 filmic adaptation, and the present film’s action also includes a couple of nail-biting sieges during the film’s finale (one of which even takes place in a car, as in the ’83 CUJO filmization). While never allowing it to interfere with its many classic horror tropes, the film can also be read at the subtextual level as a condemnation of man’s narcissistic tendencies and all the innocents (i.e., children and animals) that suffer because of it, sometimes for generations to come—a point which is further stressed by the predictable if brilliantly dire twist whammy ending.
Released through their licensing deal with StudioCanal, Kino’s disc features a (quote) “brand new 4K master”, which is a definite improvement over Anchor Bay Entertainment’s no-frills 2002 DVD (which, truth be told, was an excellent release for the time). The pictorial detail of Kino’s new transfer is now virtually flawless, and this is especially evident during many of the film’s nocturnal sojourns at Lake Arrowhead, as well as in the numerous attack scenes. Equally, the DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track also sounds perfectly fine, with no noticeable issues. For those that need them, the disc comes with SDH subtitles for the hearing-impaired.
As with their excellent audio commentary on Kino’s earlier Blu-ray of William “One-Shot” Beaudine’s much-maligned BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA (1966), authors and film historians Lee Gambin and John Harrison return for another highly entertaining commentary, which is brimming with their usual enthusiasm and crammed with interesting and relevant factoids. The pair freely admit that ZOLTAN is a “multi-genre” film, yet another take on (quote) “vampires in the modern world”; they are also both impressed with the (quote) “organic and real” canine performances. Of course, much of the discussion revolves around renowned animal trainers Karl Lewis Miller and Lou Schumacher, whose various training techniques get the most out of their canine actors. In an interesting bit of trivia, that same year, both German shepherds also co-starred in Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) and Clouse’s aforementioned THE PACK. They also go on to talk about animals seen in other supernatural chillers, such as Curtis Harrington’s made-for-TV’er DEVIL DOG (1978) and Richard Donner’s theatrical blockbuster THE OMEN (1976); lastly, much of the film’s interesting cast and crew are thoroughly discussed including Nalder’s future roles as Dr. Van Helsing in Phillip Marshak’s porno parody DRACULA SUCKS (1978) and his terrifying turn as the Nosferatu-like Kurt Barlow in Tobe Hooper’s two-part TV film, SALEM’S LOT (1979), and in addition Gambin and Harrison both give special, well-deserved praise to Andrew Belling’s superb score, which brings a suitably (quote) “otherworldly, eerie effect” to the proceedings. Great work from both gentleman, so let’s hope they have more commentaries planned for the future!
Other extras include ZOLTAN’s lengthy theatrical trailer (3m21s), plus those for a number of other horror movies in the Kino library, including Sutton Roley’s CHOSEN SURVIVORS (1974) and Brice Mack’s JENNIFER (1978), a pair of other animal-centric films (the former involves vampire bats and the latter killer snakes). The disc also contains reversible artwork that highlights this thoroughly-engaging film’s alternate DRACULA’S DOG poster, all of which amounts to yet another terrific Blu-ray from the fine folks at Kino! Order it direct from Kino Lorber or from DiabolikDVD.