Monday, March 6, 2017

"We Will Steal a Body and We Will Take It to the Cemetery" - Cemetery of Terror (1985)

Let us now consider a Mexican film from 1985, Cemetery of Terror, aka Cementerio del Terror, a creepy old dark house story, expertly told.

Your universe's uncharitable critics, as ever, fail to recognize the value of Ruben Galindo Jr.'s classic. For example, reviewer insomniac_rod on IMDB writes, ”'Cementerio del Terror' isn't by any means a good Slasher flick. Let's take it for what it is: a cynical rip-off of the Friday the 13th sequels and a rip-off mix of 'Evil Dead' and 'Night Of The Living Dead.'" BA_Harrison on IMDB writes, “extremely dumb and utterly chaotic nonsense from start to finish.” Patrick Van Hauwaert, also on IMBD, writes “Cemetery was a total flop for me. So bad that I had trouble keeping awake.”

What these critics fail to understand, however, is that this is a film about goings-on in a cemetery. Of terror.

The film opens with red titles over a black background, accompanied by the savage howls of wolves with moderate to severe indigestion. The titles fade to a horrifying scene: a disheveled apartment in which a man watches static on a TV.

The man falls asleep and dreams that common dream of flipping through a book and then stalking a woman with a twisted ankle through a brick hallway. The man turns into a monster, kills the woman in an elevator, and is shot at least 87 times by three police officers. Then he wakes up, startled.

This opening sequence is both suspenseful and frightening, and, given the office building location, a clever way to begin a film called Cemetery of Terror.

When the man wakes up in the morning to a ringing phone, we find out he is Dr. Camilo Cardan, and he is needed at the police station.

Elsewhere, we learn that a group of nursing students--enrolled at Texas Southmost College (a real college but perhaps also a sly reference to the film's Mexican origin)--has convinced another group of students to come to a "jet set" party at an abandoned house.


Getting to the party requires taking a long walk on a long pier to a short motorboat. The boat takes the traditional group of three girls and three boys to a second pier, where they waterski for a significant amount of time.

At the police station, the helpful police captain explains to Dr. Cardan that a disturbed Satanist patient  under Dr. Cardan's care, Devlon, has escaped, and the escape is Dr. Cardan's fault.


Later, the college kids arrive at the fog-shrouded, abandoned house where the "jet set" party is being held. We also now realize the film is set on Halloween night, as one of the partygoers is wearing a Creature from the Black Lagoon mask.

(It must be pointed out that, in a clever contradiction of expectations based on the film's title, the audience has yet to see a cemetery, or for that matter any terror.)

Back at the party, the college boys are surprised that their dates, who were told to expect a "jet set" party, are not excited to be at a cobweb-infested old house for a party complete with soda and chips, but no music. There is nothing to do but explore the abandoned house.

Within a few moments, one of the boys finds the traditional book of the dead, in this case inscribed with the name Devlon. The boy grins with great satisfaction at his discovery. He carries the book to the living room and immediately starts to read it aloud.

Of course, the boys hatch a clever plan, reasoning that the only way the girls will "fall into their arms" is to scare them further. The boys continue reading from the book, then suggest using the book to revive a dead body through an invocation of the devil.

Their plan involves performing a ceremony in a cemetery. "We will steal a body and we will take it to the cemetery."

"And where do you think you'll find a body?" asks another boy.

"At the morgue."

(Another of the film's subversions of expectations must be discussed here. In most films, there is a diversity of opinions among the characters, with some males and females differing in their reactions to the familiar plan of stealing a corpse from the morgue and reviving it in the cemetery. In Cemetery of Terror, there is no such diversity: All the boys are in favor of the plan, and all the girls are opposed. Naturally, the plan proceeds.)

Meanwhile, some younger children comprising the only five trick-or-treaters this Halloween night--none of them in costume--decide to hit the cemetery as well. A van driven by a stranger pulls up and the driver asks where they are going. They all answer, "The cemetery!" They get into the van.

(Again I must interject, this time because of a fascinating cultural phenomenon. Although the film is Mexican, though set in Texas, and everyone speaks Spanish, one of the children yells "Shotgun!" in English when climbing into the front seat of the van, solidifying the well known, international cultural tradition.)

The college students arrive at the morgue, which resembles an elementary school. The students, with their excellent working knowledge of the layout of the local morgue, quickly find a room full of corpses lying under bedsheets.

After investigating a series of young, attractive corpses, they find a suitably horrific body, unaware that at the same moment Dr. Cardan and the police captain are speeding to the morgue to find the body of Devlon, apparently to make sure he is in fact dead.

In a suspense sequence worthy of early John Carpenter, the college students wheel the body out the back door while Dr. Cardan and the captain rush through the front door to serve a judge's order to cremate Devlon's body. Needless to say, the body is gone.

In the presumably nearby cemetery, one of the boys reads from the book to reanimate the fully dressed corpse. The reanimation will work, according to the book, because it is the sixth day of the sixth month at the sixth hour of the day. (It must be noted that counting hours in Texas/Mexico must be unique, as the ceremony occurs after it has been dark for many hours, probably around 9:00 pm. If it is the sixth hour, then counting must start around 3:00 pm, for some reason. Furthermore, in the film, Halloween appears to occur on June 6.)

The ceremony appears to be a failure and a heavy rain starts, so the students abandon the cemetery. Once they are gone, however, we realize the spell is working. For one thing, it is only raining in the cemetery; the film cuts to the police captain's car and there is no rain in sight. For another thing, Devlon's corpse awakens as soon as the students are gone.

The younger, costumeless trick-or-treaters arrive at the cemetery--now with no rain--just in time for Devlon's walk through the graveyard. But first the kids spend about one-fourth of the film's running time lighting candles for their squashes carved into jack-o-lanterns.

The college students return to the abandoned mansion, and the boys' plan to frighten the girls into amorousness appears to have worked, as all three girls are now entirely receptive to their advances.

It is here that the film again plays against expectations. Devlon's walking corpse approaches the abandoned house--he is not threatening the children at the cemetery at all! Devlon murders one of the college couples instantly in the front yard.

The bodies are quickly discovered, but the couple who discovered them is dispatched almost as quickly as the first couple, leaving only one boy and one girl, upstairs listening to music on a massive radio. The girl is killed by Devlon, who swipes at his victim with his seemingly ordinary fingernails, which are capable of ripping the skin and spraying blood everywhere. Then the boy is quickly murdered as well; all of the college students are dispatched in a span of about five minutes.

We return to the cemetery (of terror) and the children, considering only for a moment the question of why Devlon went all the way to the mansion after being reanimated.

The children are spooked by, among other things, the sight of a skull lying on the ground and an exploding crypt. Not unwisely, they run screaming through the cemetery.

The children find the abandoned mansion and venture inside for safety, ignoring the corpse hanging from a hook in the front hallway.


The group finds bodies upstairs, but it is too late. The reanimated Devlon is climbing slowly up the steps. The five children hide in a closet, and three of them reenact the familiar "totem pole" spying pose familiar from such works as every Three Stooges short.

But these children are resourceful. They remove a small axe from an unfortunate college student's head and use it to protect themselves as they run hysterically through the house, stumbling upon all of the other college students' mutilated bodies.

Devlon proves too slow to stop the children. They climb out a window and run back toward the cemetery, the corpse following close behind them.

Because it is after 10:00 pm, the youngest boy decides to fall asleep on a grave, but the others drag him away.

For no reason whatsoever, the cemetery truly becomes a cemetery of terror as all the corpses emerge from their resting places in a stunning, highly energetic, and slightly slapstick homage to similar scenes in John Gilling's Plague of the Zombies and Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2.


Wisely, three of the children choose to hide in a crypt, but they soon decide to leave and continue running wildly through the graveyard.

The tension is stretched to the breaking point as the filmmakers intercut the horrific events in the cemetery of terror with repeated scenes of the police and Dr. Cardan driving around searching for the kids.

In the thrilling climax, the doctor crashes through the cemetery gates, plows down three zombies, and rescues the children in a stolen police car.

Shockingly, the car stalls! Surrounded by zombies, Dr. Cardan can only slap the reanimated hands away and join the children as they yet again run hysterically through the cemetery. Fortunately for the children, Dr. Cardan is able to use what is traditionally the most effective weapon against zombies: the right hook. One of the girls uses another traditional weapon that is highly effective: a massive crucifix, which proves to be far more useful than the many, many crosses used as markers in the graveyard.

Realizing their only hope is to destroy Devlon's unholy book, they all run back to the house, find the book, and fling it into the fireplace, where a fire is still burning. The zombies all burst into flame.

When the police finally arrive at the house, the children are all safe and sound. But when a photographer enters the house, he finds the singed book among the ashes. The camera moves from the book to the man, and it is not the photographer at all--but Devlon!

With this unexpected stinger, the film ends, and the audience is left to catch its collective breath.

It must be admitted that Cemetery of Terror pulls concepts from a large number of popular American movies that were made before it such as The Evil Dead, One Dark Night, Frightmare (aka The Horror Star), and even, somehow, from movies that were made after it, such as Night of the Demons (1988 and 2009). It could even be seen as a lost two-part episode of The Brady Bunch, possibly directed by Lucio Fulci. Ruben Galindo’s film pulls all these elements together in a skillful and artistic way. Like Beyond Darkness, it improves upon its predecessors by mixing everything together. The best example of this is the narrative trick of following two groups of potential victims throughout the film. Devlon’s attack on the college students eliminates the awkward period in a slasher movie between the setup and the grisly finale, and it leaves the group of trick-or-treaters to be menaced in the climactic scenes. This structure does a great deal to improve the pacing of the film.

The film also benefits from the presence of prolific actor Hugo Stiglitz, familiar from Umberto Lenzi’s Italian film Nightmare City, as Dr. Cardan. Mr. Stiglitz is excellent in his wide variety of scenes: yelling at the police captain, riding in a car with the police captain, and finally defending the trick-or-treaters from certain death during the zombie attack finale. Jose Gomez Parcero is also excellent as the reanimated villain Devlon, a shambling presence whose fingers can tear people to ribbons. I do not believe Devlon returned in any of Mr. Galindo Jr.’s subsequent films, but he would have made a fine antagonist in any slasher film set in Texas, Mexico, or a combination of the two.

In the end, Cemetery of Terror is successful because it is a highly entertaining roller coaster ride that follows both the nursing students of Texas Southmost College and the trick-or-treaters willing to get into the van of any stranger open to driving them to a cemetery, not to mention the skilled doctor and occultist Camilo Cardan, an expert at both losing track of killer Satanists and knowing how to defeat them. While the ending of this film implies that Dr. Cardan was killed in the climactic battle, I, for one, would pay a moderate amount of money to see a film reuniting Dr. Cardan and Devlon. Such is the excitement engendered by the classic Mexican slasher film Cemetery of Terror.