When Hammer’s first gothics made box office waves, there was a general revival of the form around the world. In their haste to get in on the act, Hollywood filmmakers experimented with odd vampire mutations: in 1958-9, we got Blood of Dracula (basically, I Was a Teenage Vampire), The Vampire (a Jekyll/Hyde science fiction variant, handily equivalent to The Werewolf), The Return of Dracula (a meld of Dracula and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt) and this vampire-themed Western shot fast, cheap and in black and white on the familiar Universal cowboy movie set. It was the support feature for Hammer’s The Mummy on its US release.
Obviously, Don Drago Robles – Spanish murderer/suicide in an embroidered jacket, deceased 1859 – and his later vampire incarnation Drake Robey – all-in-black gunslinger – are named in order to evoke Dracula. Several scraps of dialogue and bits of business are handily recycled from Universal’s Dracula films. But, as played by distinctive-looking Australian Michael Pate, Drake is an unusual multi-genre characters, so it’s a shame the film he stalks through is so haphazard and mild. Director Edward Dein, who also co-wrote with his wife Mildred, allegedey pitched this as an unfilmable joke, with a gay cowboy vampire – only for Universal to greenlight it. Though comedy was leeched out, Drake’s fetish leathers and several scenes of him nuzzling men’s throats suggest the original version didn’t change quite as much as the studio would have wished.
When the film starts, the vampire has already come to town and a local lass (Nancy Kilgas) is stricken with fatal pernicious anemia. She rallies and Doc Carter (John Hoyt) suggests the healing prayers of smug Preacher Dan (Eric Fleming) were responsible for her cure … then she’s struck down again and dies (with an open window). Having got that plot in motion, attention switches to Doc’s winsome daughter Dolores (Kathleen Crowley) and hothead son Tim (Jimmy Murphy). The Carters are feuding with aggressive, expansionist rancher Buffer (Bruce Gordon), who lords it over the Sheriff (Edward Binns) and guns down doltish Tim in a provoked duel. Understandably ticked off by the failure of the law and the church to stand up for her land rights, Dolores hires Drake – who has been lurking in shadow, accompanied by an over-the-top eerie theme – to go after Buffer. Though Drake has incidentally killed her father, Dolores is not wrong that he’ll tip the balance in the range war. As a vampire, his gimmick is that he lets the other guy draw and shoot first then coolly and legally guns him down.
It’s slightly counterintuitive that Drake, whose look is modelled on Jack Palance’s gunman in Shane, signs up to fight for the good guys (as Alan Ladd does in Shane) rather than the better-paying villain … but Robey is returning to what was his family spread at the time of his flashback tragedy and is also romantically fixated on the heroine in a way that prefigures moon-eyed vampire lovers to come without even the excuse that she’s an incarnation of his lost love (Robles’ faithless wife hooked up with his brother, causing all the trouble in the first place). In the underbaked finale, Drake and Preacher Dan stride into the street for a gunfight – the pastor seems much more motivated by the fact that Drake is horning in on his girl than a religious impulse to confront the Devil – which the vampire is confident he’ll win. In one of those lunatic ideas casually thrown down by unambitious quickies, Pastor Dan has a lapel pin cross made from a coin found at the site of the crucifixion. He figures that might serve as a bullet that’ll kill a vampire, though cramming in the thing in a Colt .45 might equally cause the gun to blow up in his hand.
The later Billy the Kid vs Dracula is camper and wilder. The oddest, most appealing thing about Curse of the Undead is that it seems unaware of how far out it is. Dein either encourages or can’t prevent a couple of supporting actors – Murphy, especially – from acting at a ridiculously high pitch. With Jay Adler, later in Grave of the Vampire, as a bartender; future High Chaparral star Henry Darrow as the treacherous Robles brother; and frequent monster stunt man Eddie Parker as one of Buffer’s gang of useless hanging-around-the-saloon goons.