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Monday, September 23, 2013

Survive! (1976) review


Hugo Stiglitz (Francisco), Norma Lazarino (Silvia), Luz Maria Aguilar (Mrs. Madero), Fernando Larranaga (Madero), Pablo Ferrel (Raul)

Directed by Rene Cardona

***This review/article uses screencaps from both the US and Mexican versions on the VCI DVD. It also utilizes images from magazines from the time to help put Cardona's movie in perspective***

The Short Version: Rene Cardona Sr.'s most internationally well known movie is this oft slandered rendition of human fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds. Based on the true story of the Andes Mt. survivors who consumed human flesh to survive, Cardona's original version is faithful to its source; and much better than its more well known, disemboweled US counterpart. The latter jettisons much of the exposition and focuses primarily on the sensationalism; and does so rather sloppily. Despite its place in the annals of trash cinema, Cardona's production is an occasionally compelling disaster movie punctuated by several moments of revulsion made all the more disturbing in that they actually happened.

On October 13th, 1972, Uruguayan flight 571 carrying 45 passengers went down in the snow covered Andes Mountains. During the two months they spent trapped in that snow-drenched hell, the group gradually dwindled in number from injuries, freezing temperatures and hunger. Running out of food and other supplies, a decision was made that if they were to continue living, they would have to eat the bodies of the dead passengers. Ultimately, a plan to hike out of the mountainous tomb was put into effect, but this, too, proved a treacherously difficult undertaking.

A lot of folks dismiss this Mexican made 1976 production based on the true story that shocked the world back in 1972. Reportedly, even the producers who bought the rights to the picture hated it. Paramount Pictures, the company that ended up distributing it in America hated it. Essentially a bastard child of their 1976 release slate, a lot of changes were made to make the film palatable for American consumption. 

Shorn of some 26 minutes of footage (from its original 111 minute running time), the picture ended up being something of a surprise success for Paramount. Since its theatrical release, the movie subsequently fell into relative obscurity, although it used to turn up regularly on television throughout the 1980s. 

A 1993 American production called ALIVE pretty much buried the '76 version -- rarely to be spoken of again. Even in later articles about the Andes Mountains ordeal, the Cardona movie goes unmentioned while the '93 picture steals the limelight every time. However, the original, unedited Mexican version does have merit; and seen today, it's much better than its reputation suggests. The slipshod US release on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired -- yet it, too, has its fans.

Comparing the two cuts present two vastly different movies in more ways than one. Raul Lavista's subdued, barely there score was replaced by a noisier one from Gerald Fried that never matches the horror of the situation. It sounds more like it belongs in a family, or light-hearted adventure movie than a picture with the sort of grim subject matter this one has. High spirited musical cues just do not mix well with being buried under mountains of snow and cannibalism. Lavista's music is almost non-existent. The sounds of penetrating wind and piercing cold add much to the subtlety of the somber score.

Exposition and major sections of the film were re-edited, or cut away from the narrative; gory moments showcasing corpse carving, exposed intestines of frozen bodies, and pus oozing from leg wounds were trimmed slightly. SURVIVE! does have opening B/W images of the films cast on the Rugby field (see above) and closing images of the cast aboard the plane. These shots are not present in the original Mexican release. 

With all its alterations, the US release does move at a faster clip, but the original version (under the title of SUPERVIVIENTES DE LOS ANDES) is better acted and more engaging. The dubbing in the English release is mediocre, and the dubbers don't even try to deliver their lines with any conviction. With much of the unsettling footage retained, the gutting (and shuffling) of exposition makes SURVIVE! feel more like an exploitation movie than a serious drama based on a real life event. You could refer to the US cut as the 'Greatest Hits' of SUPERVIVIENTES DE LOS ANDES. 

This being the late 1970s and pre STAR WARS (1977), trashy exploitation movies were still in vogue; and big studios were not immune to their charms. The ballyhoo for SURVIVE! was suitably unpleasant for the market it was seemingly being geared towards. The ad campaign and theatrical marketing accentuated the repellant sensationalism of the narrative. These grisly moments only made up a small portion of the original picture, but the American cut was built around them.

Shot at the prestigious Churubusco Azteca Studios (home to the more popular examples of vintage Mexi-horror cinema from the late 50s and 1960s), it's actually fairly epic in its unexpurgated form. Some scenes have a level of poignancy you wouldn't expect from the man who brought such films as WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY (1964), SANTO VS. THE STRANGLER (1965), SANTO IN THE TREASURE OF DRACULA (1969) and NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1969) to the Silver Screen. Cardona's movie was respectful, and incredibly faithful to the actual events.

Some of the films more powerful moments include the moment where the cannibalism becomes a gruesome reality for the survivors. One of them is sent out onto the frozen landscape where he begins the torturous task of carving away the flesh from the back of one of the frozen dead. As he cuts and shreds away red meat from bone, he cries at the awful act he must do.

The scene that follows the above described one is just as strong. The freezing inhabitants of the wrecked plane's fuselage silently file out one by one to partake in the eating of flesh. With each passing passenger, a woman and her husband sit shocked and disgusted, not wanting to comprehend the reality of what's happening.

With the original Mexican version a lucrative production in its homeland, and SURVIVE! being a sizable international success, director Cardona's son (producer on the picture) quickly capitalized on the films success by embarking on two more lurid pictures of sensational disasters -- one was yet another shocking true story (based on Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre starring Stuart Whitman) and the other was a rehash of SURVIVE!. CYCLONE (1978) was basically a reworking of the senior Cardona's movie, but the scenario was transposed to the ocean as opposed to the Andes. 

The plot is virtually identical about a myriad group of vacationers stranded at sea after they're caught in the middle of the title natural disaster. The results are the same, only there are bigger names amongst the cast; and CYCLONE's ending is vastly different, as well as being nihilistic.

The story of the Andes Mountain survivors was an incredibly shocking story at the time. Above is a photo of the actual passengers taken before the crash (Photo above from this 2012 article HERE). Rarely had such a tale of human endurance and triumph of the will over adversity and extreme hopelessness caught the public's fascination the way this one did. The actual events could have been stripped from an Irwin Allen disaster picture of the time period, but with an added, and suitably appalling plot device. 

Andes Mt. article from the September 1974 issue of Stag

The ordeal had been the subject of many headlines and magazine articles. It was first published in book form in January of 1973 by author Clay Blair Jr. Titled 'Survive!', this 280 page thriller was the source for Cardona's movie. A reprint of the book came in 1976 bearing the cover tag, 'Now a major film'. Later that year in 1973, there would be another publication detailing this amazing story.

Los Angeles lawyer and writer Enrique Hank Lopez wrote a book on the tragedy with the exploitational title of 'They Lived on Human Flesh'. Released in September of 1973, the 192 page pocket book was the first of multiple editions throughout the decade. But like Cardona's movie, a book by Piers Paul Read gets repeated recognition while Lopez's is largely forgotten. However, the late lawyers book was partially reprinted as a story in the September 1974 issue of Stag magazine.

The terrible tale was also sensationalized in periodicals. One such article was 'We Ate our Buddies to Survive' -- a triple tale of cannibalism passed off as true accounts in the March, 1975 issue of Men (see spread above); a salacious nudie magazine from purveyors of male pulp publications, Magazine Management Company Inc. Other 70s mags from this company (like Stag) featured high quotients of exploitation value, spectacular artistry for its trashy "true stories", and nude pictorials of lovely ladies.

British author Piers Paul Read wrote a best-selling book in 1974 titled 'Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors'. Revised and reprinted a number of times, it got a lot of attention and accolades over the years. At the time, Read stated some of the survivors who were interviewed for the book were not happy with the way he presented their story. With so much already out there regarding this remarkable tale, more was to come after Cardona's movie was released, and subsequently dropped off the radar.

Photo from Stag Magazine, Sept. 1974

In 1993 came the big budget US production of ALIVE, directed by Frank Marshall. It was based on the aforementioned Piers Read book from 1974. As so many criticize the Mexican production for certain budgetary deficiencies, similar negatives apply to this glossier Hollywood picture. Sadly, this picture is the one that is always cited in articles when the subject of the Andes tragedy and triumph is revived. It's as if the Cardona film had never existed; or was as much an embarrassment now as it was perceived to have been by its foreign handlers back in the day. 

At the dawn of the new millennium, even more about the tale was forthcoming, and the '76 production would remain buried. Below are several more documentaries and adaptations that show this story of heroism and determination is still a potent topic some 40 years later.

Mountain climber Ricardo Pena realized a lifelong dream to explore the area where the 45 Andes plane crash victims lived, died and survived. The results of his excursion was published in a 2005 issue of Backpacker Magazine. Amazingly, Pena found a number of artifacts in and around the crash site including a wallet belonging to one of the survivors, Eduardo Jose Strauch! Pena has so far been the only person to repeat the event by hiking the route taken by Parrado and others during their torturous ordeal.

Photo from September 1974 issue of Stag Magazine

Fernando "Nando" Parrado, one of the survivors, wrote his own account of what happened with the 2006 book, 'Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home'. It expanded upon the best-selling 1974 book from Piers Paul Read, and was possibly done as a result of dissatisfaction with Read's tome.

In 2007, Uruguayan filmmaker Gonzalo Arijon directed a documentary that was told from the mouths of many of the actual survivors. STRANDED aka STRANDED: I'VE COME FROM A PLANE THAT CRASHED ON THE MOUNTAINS included both simulations of the event and actual news footage upon their return to civilization.

Yet again, another documentary surfaced in 2010. This one was titled I AM ALIVE: SURVIVING THE ANDES PLANE CRASH. Brad Osborne's two hour long reenactment is told from Parrado's perspective. Some of the survivors participate (including Roberto Canessa and Eduardo Strauch), as does Ricardo Pena. It debuted October 20th, 2010 at 8pm on The History Channel.

In July 2013, 'Mortal Rituals' was published. Another book on the Andes Mountains survivors, Matt J. Rossano analyzes the story from an evolutionary perspective.

On November 1st, 2011, VCI Entertainment released a special edition DVD that ended up not being so special. It contained a widescreen version of the American SURVIVE! release, and also the uncut, and superior Mexican version SUPERVIVIENTES DE LOS ANDES. Unfortunately, the Mexican version of the film lacked subtitles despite what the box stated -- yet English subtitles are present for the English dubbed print and also the trailer for the Mexican version. 

Photo from Stag September 1974
So even today, Rene Cardona's once profitable, and popular motion picture remains a much maligned and overlooked affair. That film -- in its original form -- much like the story its based on, was a cinematic triumph for a director who was more inclined to make disposable theatrical filler. It's not a perfect movie by any stretch, but it's far better than its low-level reputation would have you believe.

This review is representative of the VCI DVD.


bruce holecheck said...

I posted an article by Paul Talbot regarding the Americanization of SURVIVE! over at my blog a while back, with some stills and pressbook scans -- it details some of the changes and decisions. Well worth a look if you're a fan!

Tommy Ross said...

I actually saw this in the theaters (the americanized version) when it came out. I've always been fascinated by this story and remember reading the book Alive in boarding school after lights-out with my flashlight under the covers, I couldn't stop reading it.

Regarding the 1993 version, I think we must remember that it was Hollywood formula sh*t (translated = big budget Hollywood production) and so what could we expect. It had all the pluses especially the cinematography. My biggest gripe with that film and it's a big gripe is how they left out the part at the end when they find Sergio which to me is most compelling.

I like how you mentioned other versions and especially "I Am Alive" History Channel which I own in my collection and consider to be top-notch. I highly recommend it as there are key facts of the story told which are commonly left out, for example how the pilot's made their error, and where the survivors actually thought they were, etc.

I can't believe they left out the English subtitles on the new DVD, what a shame. I would love to see that, hopefully there's a way to track it down.

Really great post, thumbs UP!!

Tommy Ross said...

oh what do you know, here's the full mexican version with english subtitles!

venoms5 said...

@ Bruce: I've read it before, thank you. Actually, I was working on mine when I read it the first time you posted it, so I put this one off for a while and only just came back to it yesterday. The original cut is vastly underrated, I'd say.

@ Tommy: I first saw it on TV in the early 80s, but was cognizant of the incident from school. A fascinating story, as you pointed out. I haven't seen the History Channel doc yet, I wanted to make my piece as different as possible, so I researched just how much was out there, and if Cardona's movie was ever mentioned anywhere -- and it wasn't.

That version on youtube must be the foreign disc with the burned in subs. It's OOP now, I think. I had hoped VCI would have corrected this mistake, but apparently sales weren't enough for them to go back and fix it. Thank you for your remarks, Tommy!


Saw this at the drive in,after seeing the great TV ad campaign for it.Hated the "remake". One of those "guilty pleasures" of a bygone era.

Tommy Ross said...

Just want to chime in here one more time after watching it last night on You Tube, then I'm going to link up this post with my blog as well as the You Tube video.

It was really great to see this again after all these decades. The downsides of this Mexican adaptation is they did twist facts of the story into plot devices on several occasions that were simply not true. One example being when the survivors try to reconnect the radio and it blows up which simply did not happen. They couldn't get the radio reconnected because there were too many wires to try and figure out which connected to which. The upside to this version and in my opinion a very strong upside is this was made in the 70's and they had no CGI or fancy special effects to rely on. The story is told with good old fashioned film making. I also like how in this version they spend a lot of time showing what was going on with the people involved in the searching for the plane.

While I agree with the general consensus that the 1993 version is a "miss" I do feel credit is necessary for their faithful adaption to the storyline and for shooting near the actual location of the wreck. When watching it you do really get the sense of cold and isolation they were experiencing. Perhaps if they had cast unknowns (like they did with United 93) it may have been a great picture. I think the A and B list actors with familiar faces somehow ruined the reality itself that they were trying to portray.

Thanks again for your great post and I do recommend the History Channel "I Am Alive" doc very highly as you get the story told straight first-hand from Nando himself.

venoms5 said...

@ ROCKER: This is possibly Cardona's best movie. At least the best of the ones I've seen. Most of his movies are never quite as serious, or well made as this one, imo.

@ Tommy: Probably my biggest gripe with the '93 version is the main cast were all Americans and everybody looked "glamorous" after all they went through, so to speak. Haven't seen it in some time, though, so I should probably remedy that.

The few critics who bothered to mention the '76 film condescended to it as some sort of low budget quickie. Compared to US productions, than yes, it's low budget, but for Mexican cinema, it was impressive.

I do like in the '76 film how they mention pilot miscalculation, and also that the survivors were much closer to a safe-haven than they realized.

I also found it interesting how the '76 film optioned the Blair book instead of the more sensationally titled Hispanic one that came later that same year.

I am going to look for that doc, and most likely purchase it if it's on dvd. There were far more made than I was aware of as I was writing this piece.

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