Color, 1989, 88 mins. 29 secs.
Directed by Rubén Galindo Jr.
Starring Fernando Almada, Edna Bolkan, Erika Buenfil, Ernesto Laguardia, Agustín Bernal
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), BCI/Eclipse (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
Still woefully neglected internationally for some reason, Mexican horror (particularly from the 1960s through the 1990s) has had a rich and wild history extending far beyond the likes of Santo and company. Sure, a few lucky ones like Night of a Thousand Cats managed to sneak out to drive-ins everywhere, but the vast majority has still flown way under the radar even when English-friendly home video editions came out on DVD. One of the great unsung heroes from the later era is director Rubén Galindo Jr., who turned out a trio of astonishing and highly entertaining genre films between 1985 and 1989 including Cemetery of Terror and the insane Don't Panic. The last of the bunch is Ladrones de tumbas or Grave Robbers, a supernatural slasher film packed with gory special effects and rich atmosphere; a perfect intro to Galindo's style, it's been crying out for a fan following for years and may finally get it courtesy of its welcome Blu-ray release.
In the bowels of a 19th-century monastery, a surprisingly beefy monk (Bernal) is being tortured by his brothers of the cloth for practicing Satanism within the walls. Refusing to repent and facing execution by axe to the chest, he issues a curse that one day the weapon will be removed and allow him to sire the son of the devil from one of the monks' descendants. Rather than finish him off with a few extra axe blows or a decapitation for good measure, the executioners leave the axe in his chest and stash the body in hiding where it remains for many, many years. In the present day, local lawman Lopez (Almada) cheerfully sends his beloved teenager daughter, Olivia (Bolkan), off for an overnight camping trip with her friends in the woods. At the same time, young Manolo (Laguardia) and his buddies are convinced by the bleach-blonde Rebeca (Buenfil) that their recent graveyard-robbing antics are about to pay off because of a huge stash of gold treasure nearby. Six of infiltrate a certain crucial burial ground where Rebeca promptly plunges down a deep subterranean shaft, uncovering the resting place of the Satanist and naturally prompting them to pull out the axe after they stumble onto some of the treasure they've been seeking. Running for their lives, they soon get stuck and draw the ire of Lopez, with the now undead menace running rampant with his huge axe and decimating the local populace including Olivia's pals. Can the survivors find a way to ward off the homicidal terror before it's too late?
A perfect viewing option for Halloween (or autumn in general), Grave Robbers wastes no time getting going right from the bloody opening sequence and the obligatory assembling of all of its potential body count participants. The characters are all agreeable enough, the actors seem to be having fun, and the murders are plenty zesty with lots of unexpected axe blows and spraying gore effects as heads, hands, hearts, and pretty much everything else roll at some point. The first half hour or so could have easily played as that movie within a movie in Demons, but after that it delivers the slasher goods with great energy and also looks quite slick with some beautifully moody nocturnal photography. Great fun all around.
Shown theatrically in Mexico (where it was quite successful) and in Spanish-language U.S. markets, this film became more popular in its native country when it hit VHS and became something of a party viewing staple. The first English-subtitled edition popped up on DVD from BCI/Eclipse in 2007 as part of its "Crypt of Terror" line of Mexican horror releases, in this case paired up on a disc with the far more sedate The Demon Rat (in a Horror South of the Border set) and also as a standalone disc edition with Cemetery of Terror. Featuring an okay full frame transfer, that was a functional introduction to the film for most viewers but left a lot of room for improvement. That upgrade came about in 2020 with a Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome (not to be confused with the label's Graverobbers from 2018), including a limited embossed slipcover edition designed by Richard Hilliard. The new 4K scan from the 35mm negative is an absolute stunner and truly looks like a different film, with a gorgeous amount of depth and detail throughout as well as rich colors throughout. If only all Mexican genre films could be treat with this level of respect (VCI, take note), the world would be a much better place. The DTS-HD MA Spanish mono track also sounds pristine and really shows off that effective, percussive score; optional, newly-translated yellow English subtitles are provided. As with other recent VS releases, a lossy Dolby Digital track is also present. A new audio commentary with the gang at The Hysteria Continues is another upbeat and entertaining hangout with the slasher-savvy gents, with plenty of chat about late '80s horror, Mexican genre films including the work of René Cardona Jr., the debate over whether this really is a slasher movie, visual similarities to Lordi and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, and the backgrounds of the various performers including the "Mexican Queen of Tik Tok." Then "Unearthing the Past" (19m25s) is an English-language interview with Galindo Jr. (who looks like he must have been ten when he directed this) covering the market demands of the time (with Don't Panic geared for Americans versus the Latin one for this film), the genre directors who influenced him, the personal angle he brought to this story, the challenges of shooting so much at night, the paltry state of local prosthetics, and the efficient production that came in on time and budget.
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on September 29, 2020