Monday, July 16, 2012

Santo vs. the Zombies (1962) review


El Santo (Santo, Enmascarado de Plata), Armando Silvestre (Lt. Savage), Jaime Fernandez (detective Rodriguez), Dagoberto Rodriguez (Chief Almada), Irma Serrano (detective Isabel), Carlos Agosti (Don Herbert Rutherford), Ramon Bugarini (Roger), Lorena Velazquez (Gloria Rutherford)

Directed by Benito Alazraki

"...A legend. A chimera. He embodies the greatest things. Justice and goodness. That is Santo...the Silver Mask."

The Short Version: Santo's first leading role is an entertaining, if hopelessly silly 1930s level serial style madness. Much better than some of the later movies, The Saintly One, having been immortalized in the ring and in comic book form, gets a motion picture translation of his enduring popularity. There's a lot of child-like wonder unfolding here and in many other Mexi-horror movies; and with that mindset, you can't go wrong with one of the adventures of Enmascarado de Plata.

After returning from Haiti with his daughter Gloria where he wrote a book on Haitian psychology and voodoo practices, professor Rutherford disappears on his way to have his book published.

Unable to locate him, Gloria and the police look to masked wrestler and part time crime fighter, Santo for help. Her fathers blind brother, Don Herbert is also interested in his whereabouts.

Meanwhile, a jewelry store is robbed by three hulking zombie men who are impervious to bullets. The police believe a former Italian gangster named Dino Povetti is tied in to the robberies, but Santo knows better.

From his crime fighting headquarters, Santo is somehow able to see (on closed circuit television) a hooded villain sending his zombie minions on a mission to kidnap children from an orphanage to use the little tykes in experiments. Santo intercepts them leading to a high speed chase.

Amazingly, the hooded villain has his own satellite capabilities and sees the entire incident unfold. He then blows up his zombies in their getaway car to keep Santo and the cops from uncovering his plans.

Despite Santo having his hands all over it, a crowbar-like metal rod one of the zombies had in his possession shows traces of fingerprints belonging to Luis Roco; a dead convict killed in a police shootout eight years prior. Learning that Luis's body was claimed by Dino Povetti, the police investigate only to find Povetti murdered.

The hooded villain next sends his zombies to kidnap detective Isabel, but Santo prevents the lumbering goons from snatching her.

Irritated, the next plan of action is to kill Santo during a wrestling match by kidnapping his opponent and placing a mind controlling device in his trunks! This makes sense since that's where us men's brains are located. When that plan fails, too, the hooded zombie controller (who also has a hooded assistant) kidnaps Gloria and uses her to lure the meddling cops to the villains lair hidden beneath a mansion.

Having seen it all on his privacy invading television, it's Santo to the rescue.

Now at the conclusion of the movie, having been unexplained and overlooked throughout the first 70 minutes, the zombies electric belts turn their metallic crowbars into lethal cattle prods! We do see one of the zombies using this crowbar-like thing to burn into the jewelry store safe near the beginning, but its correlation to the belts isn't mentioned till the end.

Arriving just in time to save Gloria from becoming the first zombie woman, super Santo battles it out with the Double Diabolical Hoods destroying them, their laboratory and the zombies in the process. Triumphant, Enmascarado de Plata walks away anxiously awaiting his next silver screen adventure.

El Santo's first leading role is a curious picture indeed. It's just as goofy as any number of other entries and shot on a bigger than normal shoe string at the glorious Churubusco-Azteca studios; the home of such notably wacky Mexi-horror classics like the immortal THE BRAINIAC (1961) and the surreal, spooky excellence of CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN (1961).

El Enmascarado de Plata had already enjoyed a near three decade wrestling career before appearing in motion pictures. Reportedly, he began wrestling as El Santo sometime in the 1940s. He was also immortalized in a long running, extremely popular comic book series beginning in the early 1950s.

Having appeared in smaller roles in two movies previously, SANTO VS. THE ZOMBIES was his first major role. Santo is portrayed as a larger than life character for the first few films in this series; a superhero and a fighter of crime. He's seen as a government spy in some films and even a cowboy in one peculiar entry. His image as a wrestler is never undermined, though.

The first 11 minutes of this movie (including the credits) showcases Santo in the ring in what appears to be actual footage and not wrestling scenes shot for the production. In furthering the Silver Masked One's status as a Mexican of All Trades, a total of three matches are featured here; two of them specific to the plot.

A cadre of other wrestlers are on display here as well including Black Shadow and The Gladiator, some of which no doubt play some of the musclebound zombie men.

The script, while not perfect, is more focused than so many of these movies. They were geared towards a family audience anyways, but the three writing contributors (including the director who was also the mastermind behind the exquisitely macabre CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE) for this entry fashion a nicely character populated landscape that rarely goes off on any wild tangents.

You can probably guess who the hooded villain is (so many of these Mexi-movies have hooded bad guys in them) early on, but the writers take the time to throw a red herring or two in there.

Judging by the way Santo is shown in the ring and in the action scenes in the film, he seems a bit uncomfortable performing the numerous fight sequences. During the ending, he even falls over a table, but the camera keeps shooting. He also repeatedly uses his head as a battering ram like some characters would do in later Hong Kong kung fu movies.

There's also an unintentionally semi-creepy side to Santo's character in some of these earlier superhero movies. He watches everything, "Big Brother" style, from his closed circuit television situated in his secret headquarters. Granted, this explains how he just happens to show up whenever the villains are around, but it also makes one wonder if the Saintly One isn't occasionally peeking in on some of the curvier looking members of the movies cast.

The zombies are rife for poking fun of with their unintentional Stoogian moments when Santo lackadaisically tosses them around.

These zombies are also rather strong. It takes merely one smash to the head to take down a normal human, but Santo takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'. At one point, instead of disposing of him, the zombies decide instead to attempt to remove his mask!

There's also a lot of guns being fired into the zombies' bodies allowing the effects team to cut loose with some effective bullet hits. Early in the film, one of the main zombies takes a slug square in the head and keeps coming! Take that George Romero!

The Hooded villains have little to do till the end aside from watching their TV screens while clutching their fists, or concocting serums in their El Cheapo Franken-lab. They are less a presence than other similar antagonists such as the hooded bad guy from DOCTOR OF DOOM (1963), the first of a series of Luchadoras (lady wrestling) movies.

That films star, the lovely Lorena Velazquez, has a supporting role in SANTO VS. THE ZOMBIES. She's in and out of the narrative and does little aside from look gorgeous and provide Santo a reason for assaulting the zombie stronghold during the finale. Velazquez was a popular actress in Mexi-horror not counting her wealth of other roles.

When she wasn't playing a vivacious lady wrestler, she was playing the lead villainess in one of Santo's best loved pictures, SANTO VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN (1962), the follow up to his zombie-fest. Velazquez also essayed the Queen of the Witches in 1968s mediocre ATTACK OF THE WITCHES (filmed in 1964), a so-so film that comes off for all the world like a remake of the superior SANTO VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN (1962).

The music by Raul Lavista is much better than this series was afforded later on down the road. The cues are quite strong and typical of the early 60s Mexi-movies. These compositions sometimes sound like they'd fit comfortably in a sword and sandal movie.

It may not be as overly entertaining as SANTO VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN (1962) and SANTO IN THE WAX MUSEUM (1963), but this 30s level serial styled B/W spooker is an enjoyably swift 80+ minutes. A silly, but modestly auspicious beginning to Santo's movie career that would span 50+ feature films and an incredible legacy in Mexico.

This review is representative of the RTC-Cinematografica Rodriguez DVD. There are English and French subtitles.

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