Skip to content

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.

Suzzanna, the Queen of Indonesian Horror

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.

Plot: hospital is haunted by apparitions and suspect slayings.

Ghosts are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and folklore. They were part of oral tradition before writing developed during the Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046 BCE). From there out they came one of the earliest stories in ancient Chinese literature and they are very much part of everyday life in China to this day. The Chinese pantheon of ghosts and apparitions is especially interesting as it mixes ancient concepts of the cycle of life, death and rebirth with philosophical traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. In Chinese folklore there a multitude of different ghosts; some benevolent, some malevolent and the majority of them happen to be female. Roughly speaking there are three categories of female ghosts: the vengeful, the orphaned, and the hungry. The vengeful ghost seek retribution against those that wronged her in life, the orphaned ghost has no living descendants to offer libations in her name and thus she is forced to wander the mortal realm, while the hungry ghost is typically condemned for transgressions or wrongdoings engaged in during life. Just as in folklore and culture ghosts have been part of the Chinese cinematic landscape since the dawn of filmmaking. Asia has a long history in having some of the best ghost movies.

Whether it are classical examples like The Enchanted Shadow (1960), and The Ghost Of the Mirror (1974), post-modern fantasy-infused efforts like A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Green Snake (1993), or more contemporary outings as Ringu (1998), Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), Dark Water (2002), and The Eye (2002) Asia has a long history with ghost horror and has contributed many a classic to the subgenre. While hardly the worst of its kind Lift to Hell (電梯驚魂) occasionally manages to push the right buttons but isn’t exactly what you’d call riveting. It was based on the internet novel 18 Floors Underground (地下18層) by Bu Zhoushan Sanren and while we can’t vouch for how faithful it’s to the source material, it’s able to scrounge up an atmospheric scene here and there. Most of the time however Lift to Hell is, sadly, emblemic of Mainland China ghost horror at large in so many ways. It remains ever popular with young filmmakers due to how easy they are to make (consider them the Sino equivalent of found footage, slashers, or paranormal horrors) in general and the subgenre shows no signs of… well, giving up the ghost, you could say. Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia do this type horror far better, for all the obvious and not so obvious reasons.

In the old Peninsula Hospital in northern China head nurse Ma (Yang Qing) dies under mysterious circumstances one night after failing to take her medication. In her dying moments she remembers the 18th floor incident and the walls adorned with the words “today, it’s your turn!” written in blood. That same night Dr. Lin Fei (Blue Lan Cheng-Lung), son of hospital dean Dr. Lin Siyuan (Su De), sees what he believes to be a female ghost through the telescope from his flat in the opposite building when watching his girlfriend nurse Bai Jie (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na). Lin Fei is not liked by everybody, the nurses like him well enough, but for senior heart surgeon Dr. Zhang Tiankai (Robert Lin) his youthful idealism are a grave annoyance. One day Tiankai is accused by a journalist of the Medical Daily of plagiarising a German medical dissertation for one of his recent publications. He assumes that since they had their professional differences that Lin Fei must be behind it. When the elderly doctor too receives a “today, it’s your turn!” note in his email, he commits suicide by jumping out of the window.

All of this prompts the hospital’s geriatric custodian Hu Wei (Cai Hong-Xiang) to try and exorcise the ghost. When Lin Fei tries to consult the custodian he finds him not only unreponsive but he too commits suicide driven mad by terror. The spate of mysterious deaths stoke the rumors of the hospital being haunted among nurses and staff. The mysterious deaths compel Lin Fei to dig deep into the case history of the hospital. Since Lin Fei was the last to see old man Hu alive the good doctor is, understandably, among the suspects. This forces Bai Jie to end their relationship to safeguard her own reputation and future employment. As Lin Fei plunges deeper into his investigation Bai Jei starts dating Lin Fei’s senior Dr. Ouyang Ke (Tse Kwan-Ho). As Lin Fei follows the clues he discovers a medical malpractice case the hospital went to extremes to cover up. Will he live long enough to exonerate himself off any alleged wrongdoing, uncover the sordid truth behind Dr. Ouyang Ke, the mysterious death of Ouyang’s mother Dr. Ye Zi (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) on the 18th floor, and the alleged ghost that now seems to haunt everybody involved with the case?

Since this was a production from the Film Bureau it guarantees two things: first, there will be nothing that could be in any way construed as offensive to Chinese cultural sensibilities and/or to the state-sanctioned Chinese national identity. Second, the Film Bureau is in the habit of contracting a lot of models in their productions. In this case the prerequisite model is Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). Chau, the once-and-future Sino queen of cleavage, didn’t become a superstar overnight. She was a veritable internet phenomenom in and around 2009. In that capacity she was invited to the Knowledge Unlimited seminar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology that year where she was unable to answer a number of philosophical and existential questions. A year later veteran actor Anthony Wong singled her out for criticism and ridicule as a pseudo-model (models without formal training and who don’t meet the criteria for catwalk models, what the Chinese refer to as lang mo) calling them “bimbos”. Second, after slaving away in thankless decorative and flower vase roles of no real weight or importance in romances, ghost horrors, and comedies for almost a decade Beach Spike (2011) was sweet Chrissie’s first genuine hit and signaled that her career was on the uptick. 2013 was a busy year for her. In just twelve months Chau was in a whopping 11 (!!) movies including, but not limited to, Kick Ass Girls (2013), Cold Pupil (2013), and The Extreme Fox (2013). Of course, since sweet Chrissie cuts a dashing 32D figure you can bet that she’ll be changing clothes and taking a shower. This being Mainland China everything always stays within the realms of respectability.

Even in such a target-rich environment as the Mainland China ghost horror scene Lift to Hell is an abomination. Mired with a mess of a screenplay as well as cinematography and special effects that range from decent to amateuristic Lift to Hell is hardly a vital contribution to the subgenre. How many completely telegraphed (not to mention, obvious) jump-scares and creepy shots of darkened interiors can you throw at the viewer before boredom inevitably sets in? This is about as close to furniture - or interior design porn as you’re likely to get. There are endless meandering semi-creepy digital effects shots of elevators that you’d swear this is a Sino take on The Lift (1983) (which it isn’t, although it tries very hard to). How many shots of sweet Chrissie looking misty-eyed or constipated does the world really need? Cold Pupil (2013) had the good grace to make Chau an active participant in the plot. In what little Lift to Hell distinguishes itself from any other Mainland China ghost horror is that sweet Chrissie is given the opportunity to play multiple roles. Not that that in itself in any way an innovation, it’s an age-old continental European gothic horror convention dating back at least to the mid-sixties. The only really interesting thing that the screenplay has on offer is the explanation for its ghost. Not that that is much of a compliment as this is what Mainland China ghost horror is rightly infamous for. The law forbids it. There are no, and will not be any, ghosts, ever, in a Mainland China ghost horror. There are some mild allusions to the Diyu (地獄, or "earth prison”) of Chinese folk religion (that blends concepts of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism) but nothing is ever done with it.

Once every blue moon Lift to Hell generates a pulse and when it does so it’s able to conjure up a decent spooky image or good sound design. However rare said occurances might be it’s faint praise for a production abiding by pretty much all of the tried-and-true conventions. Lift to Hell is so rife with clichés and contrivances that it’s more fun to predict what’s going to happen next than it’s interested in scaring the viewer. On the whole it’s closer to We Are Not Alone (2016) in that it’s a good enough little genre exercise but nothing particularly compelling or even all that well written. It’s not nearly as subtextually rich as Verónica (2017) or P (2005). Chrissie Chau Sau-Na is easy enough on the eyes but at this point Blue Lan Cheng-Lung was a bigger star than she was. This means Chau’s relegated to the default position of love interest and Lift to Hell gives her practically nothing to work with. Not that sweet Chrissie is able to lift elevate Lift to Hell beyond the trite and mediocre. Don’t go in expecting a contemplative, introspective slowburn as Nobuo Nakagawa's Jigoku: The Sinners of Hell (地獄) (1960) neither hope for a grotesque bloodfeast with Mario Bava-esque lightning and set design in the way of Teruo Ishii's Jigoku: Japanese Hell (地獄) (1999). China, or Hong Kong, has spawned far better crafted ghost movies than Lift to Hell. This is not it.