Grave Robbers (1989)

OCTOBER 28, 2020


As I've been going through the Friday the 13th boxed set (via the new bonus features, mainly) and jumping around based on my mood, it's easier to see how far the series went into supernatural territory from where it started. When you're watching them in sequence it's a pretty gradual shift, but going from, say, Part 3* to Jason Goes To Hell and then back to Part 2 feels like you're just going into two different series. I bring it up because the back of Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray for Grave Robbers (aka Ladrones de tumbas) specifies that it feels inspired by the "later" F13 entries, and it never really dawned on me that this is indeed something that should be specified, because "inspired by the F13 series" could mean something very simple, like the first few, or something very very silly, like the New Line ones.

But yes, the film seems specifically inspired by Jason Lives and New Blood, though thankfully in the latter case it's just the general appearance of its hulking killer (complete with chains!). The Jason Lives inspirations are plentiful, however - the killer is accidentally resurrected from his grave, the sheriff locks up our heroes believing them to be the killer (only for another recent murder to prove their innocence as they were behind bars at the time), his daughter is in the line of fire, etc. There's even a random bit about how excited one of the cops is to get a new gun, shades of Deputy Rick Cologne and his fancy new laser sight ("Ja-bang!"). You see movies influenced by specific slashers all the time, but it's usually the original - it's rare and, admittedly, kind of charming, to see one that resembles the original in no way whatsoever but feels specifically aping one of its followups.

And hey if you're gonna copy an F13, you might as well go with one of the best. But fear not, it's not a carbon copy at all, and mostly forms its own identity through its rare but fun mix of middle ages/Inquisition stuff (it actually feels a bit like a Tombs of the Blind Dead movie in spots) and body count slasher. There are a lot of characters in it fighting for top billing, which helps stave off some of the comparisons; we have a quartet of camping girls (one of whom is the aforementioned sheriff's daughter), the sheriff and his crew, a priest who knows what's going on, and, naturally, the title characters, a group of six (though two bail out almost instantly and return later) who are planning to steal the gold and jewels from coffins but find a treasure when they accidentally fall into a long forgotten crypt that houses the corpse of a satan worshipper who was executed in the prologue as he attempted to sacrifice a virgin, vowing to return just before receiving the sharp end of an axe. When one of the robbers removes the axe, the killer is resurrected, killing everyone he encounters as he seeks a virgin to complete his sacrifice.

Luckily, the religious/sacrifice stuff doesn't really matter much for the majority of the film - once he's up and about it's about as relevant as Jason's "revenge" mission. The body count is quite respectable, as he makes his way into double digits before all is said and done, though one pair of victims is completely unknown - the deputies just call the sheriff and tell him they found some more bodies (this is the part that proves our noble grave robbers aren't murderers), but I have no idea who they are. It's a bit of a confusing edit actually, because right before this scene is when the two grave-robbing defectors return to the story, so I just assumed it was them, but then they come back again later, so whoever those other randos were is just none of our business I guess.

It's sadly not the only confusing editing choice in the film, but it's otherwise technically sound. As opposed to Italian horror around this time, Mexican productions were thriving, and honestly the production value is better than any indie slasher from America that was being produced by this point. The crypt/graveyard area is fantastic, in fact - it's almost a bit of a shame that they don't stay there long (I actually thought for a bit it would be entirely set there with the guy just going after these folks who are trapped inside). But instead we get a nice variety of locations, including the woods (via the daughter and pals) to give it that proper Friday feel. Also, speaking of the locations - it's so nice to see Mexico looking normal, not with the urine filter American productions insist on applying whenever the country is depicted in their films/shows.

As for the kills, they're surprisingly gory af at times, including a truly gnarly bit where the killer (seemingly under the bed? He has some supernatural gifts so it's possible he's just inside the guy somehow) shoves his fist outward from the guy's stomach/chest in order to grab one of his artifacts that the guy is wearing as a necklace. The amount of guts and grue we see is on par with Rhodes' death in Day of the Dead ("Choke on em!"), and it's downright jaw-dropping to see in a film that's inspired by the later, nearly blood-free F13s that were so mangled by the MPAA. The killer himself is sadly not seen too much (usually just his arm), only getting a few big hero shots near the end, but one of his demises (of course there are multiples!) is one for the record books, where a truck crashes into him and he - being a walking corpse, after all - explodes into dusty chunks. It's actually far more satisfying than his real (?) death later!

Vinegar Syndrome's blu-ray has an informative interview with writer/director Rubén Galindo Jr. (in English), who talks about the film's performance in other markets, how video was the preferred venue for audiences, etc. I was surprised/happy to learn that the film actually played theatrically in the US, though I was unable to find any actual numbers (not surprising, he says it was limited to about 40 screens in Spanish speaking markets, and this was long before extensive box office tracking was a thing) - I would kill to see that car smash with a crowd! There's also a commentary with the Hysteria Continues guys, but having listened to a few others I assume I can skip it without missing much (not really a knock on them; they just don't really ever seem to inform me of anything I'm not aware of myself, which is the only reason to listen to a commentary).

The VS folks send me a lot of their releases, and it's a mixed bag - their tastes and mine aren't exactly on the same wavelength. As a result I sometimes don't get around to watching them, and the backlog builds up, but when one clicks with me like this one did, I get very excited, because it means another gem might be in that growing pile. I know the "from the pile" reviews have been lacking this year, but now that we are near the end of the spooky season revival for the site, I will be doing my best to bring those back more often. It's just crazy that even though I almost never leave my house and work has been reduced due to the pandemic, I STILL find myself with an overwhelming number of things I mean to watch. What will it take to finally empty that box of review copies!?!?

What say you?

*I recently learned that despite not having a 3D TV, I could use my dusty PS VR to watch it in its proper 3D! So even though it's a "middle of the pack" entry it was the first disc I popped in, because after a 3D screening I realized that's really the only way I ever want to watch the film again, and of course I couldn't at home until now. However, it's not the most comfortable way to watch a movie, with the awkward helmet and cords forcing you to stay almost motionless, so I just watched a few key scenes.


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