I know you’ve been missing my regular column on vintage slasher flicks… but it’s okay, you don’t have to reveal your dark and secret shame by admitting it. If you’re familiar with my previous installments, you know I tend to focus on more obscure oddities from the often-maligned slasher subgenre, as opposed to the classic high-profile franchises that get more than enough press as it is (seriously, is there even room on the internet for another FRIDAY THE 13TH retrospective?).
I decided to back off slasher coverage for a few months to focus on other topics… but like Michael Corleone, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Still, I didn’t return for just any run-of-the-mill backyard production; it took a movie so insanely overwrought, so gloriously stupid, so shamelessly thieving — and so damn fun — that I couldn’t help but share it with you.
That film, boys and girls, is arguably Mexico’s first (and greatest) venture into the slasher domain: Rubén Galindo Jr.’s 1985 epic CEMETERY OF TERROR, a.k.a. CEMENTERIO DEL TERROR.
Buckle up, folks, ‘cuz this flick will roar through your brain lugging a ton of cinematic baggage from about a dozen horror properties — including (but not limited to) HALLOWEEN, THE EVIL DEAD, ANTROPOPHAGUS, FRIDAY THE 13TH, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, THE BEYOND, and even MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER.
Before I get started, I should lay down some ground rules: First, acknowledge that CEMETERY is clearly a shameless rip-off (and knows it), but it takes a level of enthusiasm bordering on mania to willfully pillage elements from the plots, music, photography and effects from the aforementioned titles and cram them into a 90-minute container to create a very odd-tasting but potent horror cocktail… and you gotta respect that.
Second, if you’re willing to embrace the occasional cheesiness that goes with Halloween, then it helps to consider this film a giant bowl of candy corn; you may never come near it outside of October, but it’s still comforting in its own sweet, gooey way.
With all that said, let’s get down to business.
Galindo basically starts name-checking all the old standards right out of the gate: The story begins with the violent escape of a brutal murderer and black-magic practitioner named Devlon (José Gómez Parcero), whose nemesis Dr. Cardan (grindhouse favorite Hugo Stiglitz) once tried to treat him, but is now obsessed with destroying him (on HALLOWEEN, of course).
It seems Devlon’s demonic dabbling has turned him into a hirsute homicidal ghoul with razor-sharp teeth and creepy talons for hands (closely resembling George Eastman’s hulking cannibal in Joe D’Amato’s ANTROPOPHAGUS and its sequel). He also seems nearly indestructible — but a but a hail of police gunfire seems to have finally done the trick, and his black-goo-dripping body is transferred to the local morgue.
That all changes when some mischievous med students decide to spook their gullible girlfriends (who are already pissed that the dorks hoodwinked them into believing they were invited to a “jet-set party”) by stealing a cadaver… and no prizes guessing which one they end up choosing. By the time the doctor and the Chief of Police arrive, there’s nothing but a sticky, dark stain where the devilish Devlon once reclined.
Sneaking off to the spooky, fog-filled cemetery of the title, the kids read passages from an ancient occult tome they found in a nearby abandoned house in an attempt to reanimate Devlon (who is both EVIL and DEAD, hint-hint).
At first, the ritual doesn’t seem to conjure anything more than a thunderstorm… but unbeknownst to the horny bunch, they not only succeed, but manage to awaken nearly every corpse on the grounds (maybe that’s why CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS).
In a twist that actually caught me off-guard for a couple of seconds, characters whom we’re presumably supposed to root for are murdered in extremely gory ways — and for the remaining unhinged 30 minutes, the film suddenly launches a full-on zombie assault against an entirely different group of much younger kids.
Thankfully for them, Stiglitz makes a belated but welcome heroic appearance (I just can’t say this dude’s name without picturing it in huge, stylized letters, thanks to that scene in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS). After a lot of screaming, running and flailing about in the fog with crucifixes (and a flaming impalement straight out of Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD), the evil is seemingly vanquished… but thanks to an epilogue stolen from THRILLER, we get a whole new killer.
If you’re looking for originality, subtle performances or nuanced storytelling, CEMETERY OF TERROR is about as far from your goal as you can possibly get. But for pure, concentrated schlock horror entertainment value, you have to salute this goofball flick for its unbridled enthusiasm in delivering exactly what less-discriminating ‘80s horror audiences craved… which, for today’s retro-horror fans, can translate into silly, gory, irony-free fun.
Speaking of the ‘80s: thrift-store-hunting hipsters should take note of the epic fashions on display here, including Stiglitz’s MIAMI VICE sport coat and one lucky kid’s hand-painted Michael Jackson windbreaker. Oh… and some of the characters can be seen sporting those lovably cheesy Ben Cooper Halloween masks. Nice touch.
Did I mention the entire story takes place on Halloween night? Well, maybe I did, but it bears repeating… especially since the youngest characters seem to be taking part in a weird combination of modern trick-or-treating and Irish folk traditions, carrying pumpkin lanterns while walking through the graveyard as part of a “courage test.”
Maybe something got lost in translation — and the occasionally wonky subtitles on my DVD don’t help matters either. To further muddy the waters, it looks like several of the exteriors were shot in the US (possibly in an appeal to international distributors, who presumably could pass it off in Europe as a US production).
Even weirder, while the kids’ parents warn them not to “ring bells, break bulbs or frighten the elderly,” they don’t say a thing about accepting rides from total strangers… which, of course, they do… from a creepy guy in a van. Miraculously, this turns out to be the least of their worries.
So why, you may ask, have I declared CEMETERY OF TERROR to be Mexico’s best slasher movie, given its many obvious, hilarious flaws? Because I consider these quirks to be a feature, not a bug.
If you’re looking for a slick studio-backed horror project, you shouldn’t come anywhere near this film; but if you want a crazed mashup of virtually every successful ‘80s horror trope, it offers the genre equivalent of a cheap 24-hour convenience store: a little stale and shady, but at least they offer everything you need in one stop.
As of this writing, the most commonly found Region 1 DVD of CEMETERY OF TERROR is part of BCI’s “Crypt of Terror Collection” of Mexican horror titles, pairing the film with Galindo’s 1990 slasher GRAVE ROBBERS (a less-entertaining retread of basically the same plot). That edition is currently out of print, but still affordable… and if you’re like me, it’s worth having around whenever you need a quick, sloppy serving of silly Halloween fun.