Plot: pregnant woman is murdered… and comes to haunt her wrongdoers.
To Indonesians (and weird cinema aficionados around the world) Suzzanna was, is, and remains an indisputable icon that has stood the test of time. She was for Indonesian horror cinema what Barbara Steele was to the Italian gothic, what Edwige Fenech and Nieves Navarro were to the giallo, and what Gloria Guida was to the commedia sexy all’Italiana. Her closest contemporary was probably Maria Menado in Malaysia. In other words, Suzzanna was the highest nobility and a bonafide superstar in her day. Suzzanna: Bernapas Dalam Kubur (or Suzzanna: Buried Alive internationally) is a tribute to, and celebration of, the life and work of Indonesia’s biggest and most enduring international export. Suzzanna: Buried Alive breathes new life into an older form of ghost horror that remains prevalent and popular in Asia and beyond. Suzzanna: Buried Alive ensures that Suzzanna, her legacy, and spirit continue to live on in the domestic horror scene that has changed very much since the Golden Age.
From 1950 right up until her passing in 2008 Suzzanna starred in nearly 40 movies across a variety of genres, but is remembered for the most part as one of the pillars in fantastic and horror cinema. Suzzanna started out just 9 years after the special effects extravaganza The Living Skeleton (1941) exploded at the box office at the dawn of the Indonesian horror industry making her the first domestic horror queen. She worked almost exclusively with director Sisworo Gautama Putra, Rapi Films and Soraya Intercine Film and frequently co-starred with martial artist Barry Prima. As Putra’s muse Suzzanna had the opportunity to work with the best. For her role in Girl’s Dormitory (1958) she won the Best Child Actress and Golden Harvest Award at the 1960 Asian Film Festival in Tokyo, Japan.
Putra was the man behind the first (and, to our recollection, only) Indonesian cannibal romp Primitif (1980) as well as the slasher Srigala (1981) - an imitation of Friday the 13th (1980) with a healthy dose of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) for extra spice - and Satan’s Slave (1982), an Indonesian variation on Don Coscarelli's Phantasm (1979). Under Putra’s wings Suzzanna became the leading lady in notable horror and cult epics as Birth In the Tomb (1972), The Queen Of Black Magic (1981), Sundelbolong (1981), Sangkuriang (1982), The Snake Queen (1982), The Snake Queen's Wedding (1983), Lake Eerie (1984), The Hungry Snake Woman (1986), Death-Spreading Heirloom (1990), Pact with the Forces of Darkness (1991), and The Queen of the South Sea (1991). After Putra’s death in 1993 Suzzanna all but retired. After a gargantuan 17-year absence she returned for Hantu Ambulance (2008). Suzzanna herself would pass away in mid-October that year. Since then she has become enshrined as a cultural behemoth, a domestic grand monument and an international export of global reverence and acclaim.
On the tenth anniversary of her passing perhaps the time was right to eulogize Indonesia’s one and only queen of horror. Now that there was enough distance director duo Rocky Soraya and Anggy Umbara set to creating the ultimate tribute to, and celebration of, Suzzanna’s life and work with a pretty faithful remake of Sundelbolong (1981). The choice was obvious. Ghost horror had experienced somewhat of an international resurgence with Paranormal Activity (2007) and The Conjuring (2013). Even Western audiences were familiar with the white ghost lady either through Hong Kong or Japan and Suzzanna’s role in Sundelbolong (1981) was something that even international audiences were familiar with. Thus they settled upon Suzzanna: Buried Alive and did for Southeast Asian ghost horror what Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) did for big Hollywood productions at the end of the studio system in 1969 and what Om Shanti Om (2008) did for 1970s mainstream Bollywood entertainment. To make a long story short Suzzanna: Buried Alive takes the nouveau retro aesthetic, feeds the nostalgia for vintage Indonesian horror and runs with it. Suzzanna: Buried Alive is an old school horror with old-fashioned filming techniques, make-up and prosthetics. Luna Maya would spend three hours in make-up every day for 53 days to look like Suzzanna. No wonder then that Suzzanna: Buried Alive was nominated and won big at the 2019 Bandung Film Festival, Indonesian Box Office Movie Awards, Indonesian Movie Actors Awards, and the Maya Awards. Suzzanna would be proud.
Spring, 1989. Satria (Herjunot Ali) is the director of a cable manufacturing business and him and his wife Suzzanna (Luna Maya) are eagerly anticipating the birth of their first child. At the factory disgruntled employees Umar (Teuku Rifnu Wikana) and Jonal (Verdi Solaiman) have come to demand a raise but Satria denies their request. Back in the mansion Suzzanna’s every want or need is looked after by loyal house servants Mia (Asri Welas), Pak Rojali (Opie Kumis) and Tohir (Ence Bagus). While Suzzanna is close carrying her pregnancy to term business forces Satria on a trip to Japan. One night working the graveyard shift Umar and Jonal get wind of said trip and conspire with fellow aggrieved workers Gino (Kiki Narendra) and Dudun (Alex Abbad) to burglarize their boss's mansion in a few days. Later that week Suzzanna and her servants go to a midnight revival of Lake Eerie (1984) where she’s inexplicably overcome by a feeling that something’s wrong. As Suzzanna returns home the four burglars manage to stay hidden and silently plan their escape. That’s when they’re discovered by a spooked Suzzanna. Seeing no other option now that she’ll be able to identify them as the perpetrators Umar and Jonal resort to violence and in the fracas Suzzanna ends up impaled. The four ditch the lifeless body of Suzzanna in a shallow grave. Suzzanna is resurrected as a sundel bolong and vows to kill her wrongdoers. The burglars hire shaman (or dukun) Mbah Turu (Norman R. Akyuwen) to exorcise the demon to stave off the inevitable. Who or what will be able to stop the undead Suzzanna?
Considering the meta aspect it’s nigh on impossible not to see this as an Indonesian Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994). What’s most puzzling (or problematic, rather) is Soraya and Umbara choosing to make Suzzanna a sundel bolong. The reason behind that choice is as understandable as it is obvious as Sundelbolong (1981) remains Suzzanna’s most enduring movie monster role by a long shot and this is pretty much the one and only thing that has really penetrated the international horror community at large. However, making her a sundel bolong saddles her virtuous housewife character with a load of unpleasant implications. In Southeast Asian folklore a sundel bolong is the vengeful spirit of a wronged pregnant woman (usually a prostitute) unable to give birth. She has a large hole in her back where her baby used to be. Maya’s Suzzanna is indeed pregnant but she lives a chaste, morally upright life devoted to both her husband and her faith. In the story such as it is a Langsuyar, Kuntilanak (Pontianak in Malaysia or the similar Tiyanak and Churel in the Philippines and India, respectively) would have been more logical, but it makes sense within context. It goes for Scream (1996) levels of self-awareness when it has Luna Maya’s fictional Suzzanna going to a midnight revival of Lake Eerie (1984) of the real Suzzanna. By Western standards Sundelbolong (1981) – and thus by extension Suzzanna: Buried Alive – was a fairly typical Far East ghost horror. It had the creepy black-haired lady in a white sari (one of the most recognizable ur-characters in Asian folklore) and it never got as outrageously insane as The Queen Of Black Magic (1981) (which was nominated multiple times at the 1982 Indonesian Film Festival, including the Citra Award for Best Leading Actress) or the Ratno Timoer fantasy flick The Devil’s Sword (1984) (with Barry Prima).
The men behind this are the Soraya fraternity. Consider them the Ramsay clan of Indonesia. The main force here is Raam Soraya. He has a long history in Indonesian horror and frequently worked with the actual Suzzanna. All through the 1980s Soraya produced the biggest and most memorable hits of Indonesian horror and in the nineties he produced the hallucinatory Dangerous Seductress (1992) which was one part of erotic thriller, one-part horror and all insane. It also happened to star Amy Weber - or the girl that broke the internet with Cindy Margolis - back when we still were using dial-up modems, when Doom was the biggest thing and social media was nothing but a distant flicker in the dreaming eye of its creators.
While Suzzanna: Buried Alive may have its problems (the light comedic interludes don’t always work, but they were part of the original work too. Not that they worked any better there) for the most part it’s a wonderful tribute to Suzzanna and her most legendary role. Suzzanna: Buried Alive never sets out to innovate the ghost movie, and it effectively is filmed in the way Sisworo Gautama Putra would with an absolute minimum of modern day digital trickery. Even if you haven’t seen Sundelbolong (1981) or any of Suzzanna’s other fright flicks this remains highly entertaining. In the age of endless (and interchangeable) The Conjuring (2013) rip-offs something old school is more than welcome and appreciated. Suzzanna: Buried Alive is a treat for everybody who couldn’t get enough of Suzzanna’s old horrors – and if a younger audience happens to find their way to it, that’s a bonus. As far as self-aware horror goes, this is probably the most respectful of the bunch. Is this the beginning of a Suzzanna franchise? Who knows… it might very well be. Suzzanna has portrayed enough memorable characters to make this a very loose franchise. Now it's the only question is when the inevitable and much overdue Suzzanna biopic will finally materialize.