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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: workaholic ad executive dies for the job… and comes to regret it.

Argentine vampire horror has come a long way. In the Golden Age of exploitation Latin – and South American gothics took primarily after Universal Horror and Hammer Films, respectively. Reflective of our more enlightened times Dead Man Tells His Own Tale (released domestically as El Muerto Cuenta su Historia) is a horror comedy that at points is a zombie, ghost, vampire, Satanic cult, and post-apocalyptic flick. It bounces into several different directions at once yet manages to stay surprisingly coherent – even if it comes at the price of never truly developing anything that it presents to any substantial degree. More importantly, Dead Man Tells His Own Tale pushes an outspoken feminist agenda that couldn’t feel more relevant considering women’s rights still regularly get trampled on in Argentina. Dead Man Tells His Own Tale may not have the subtlety of The Love Witch (2016) or be as on-point as Shaun Of the Dead (2004), Fabián Forte is onto something – even if he’s not the Argentine Álex de la Iglesia.

This is what you get when you combine The Day Of the Beast (1995), a hetero-normative take on Vampyros Lesbos (1971), a zombie subplot out of Idle Hands (1999), spice it up with a dash of Liar Liar (1997), a bit of What Women Want (2000) and sprinkle it with the feminist theory and women’s lib angle from The Love Witch (2016). Suffice to say Dead Man Tells His Own Tale fuses together influences and inspirations that have no sensible reason to go together but somehow do anyway. It’s leagues better in terms of writing and direction than Bolivian sex comedy My Cousin the Sexologist (2016) while having that same made-for-TV look. For no apparent reason other than to look cool Dead Man Tells His Own Tale starts in medias res, is told out of chronological order, and switches viewpoint characters around during the third act. It has no reason to work but somehow it does anyway. Dead Man Tells His Own Tale is chuckle-inducing at points and some of the gore scenes are surprisingly well-realized. As the complete antithesis to Emilio Vieyra's legendary Blood Of the Virgins (1967) (with Susana Beltrán and Gloria Prat) these vampires are of the mind rather than of the sanguine persuasion.

Ángel Barrios (Diego Gentile) is a workaholic ad executive in Buenos Aires. He’s shallow, self-centered, and chauvenist and sexist to a fault. He has a loving wife in Lucila (Mariana Anghileri, as Moro Anghileri) but he ignores her whenever convenient and at this point his relationship with her is purely transactional. On top of that, he’s estranged from his precocious daughter Antonella (Fiorela Duranda). Lucila and him have been going to relation therapy with doctor Ana (Viviana Saccone) but Ángel’s not interested in improving himself and blames Lucila for their problems instead. Ángel’s best friend is his work associate Eduardo (Damián Dreizik) who still lives with his elderly mother Cristina (Pipi Onetto). One day Ángel and Eduardo are ordered to helm a commercial for a perfume brand. During the shoot Ángel scolds the hired model (Victoria Saravia) for no apparent reason. From that point forward Ángel finds it difficult to tell what is real and what’s not. He loses all track of time until one night he finds himself in a bar getting seduced by Bea (Emilia Attías), Eri (Julieta Vallina), and a woman looking just like doctor Ana. The seductresses slash his throat, and exsanguinated he ends up on the medical slab of Dr. Piedras (Chucho Fernández).

He awakens, hobbles home, and is greeted by little Antonella who immediately notices that there’s something different about him. Lucila is understandably annoyed but shrugs it off as another of Ángel’s all-night binges. When he meets Eduardo the following day Ángel is startled by his new condition. Eduardo explains that they were killed by three Celtic goddesses for their sexist - and toxic behaviour and that they now exist in a state of unlife (or undeath). To deal with their predicament he has started a therapy group with fellow victims Norberto (Lautaro Delgado), Sergio (Berta Muñiz), Coco (Pablo Pinto), and Gustavo (Germán Romero) – all of whom, just like himself, merely exist as golems. Ángel feverishly continues to work while being something of a ghost in his own household. He learns that the three goddesses are preparing for the resurrection of the Morrígan Macha (Marina Cohen) by killing all sexist males. To make matters worse Cristina indoctrinates and inducts Lucila into the cult of the Morrígan. As the cult conducts a nocturnal ceremony the dead rise, the earth splits open, and Macha is indeed resurrected. Unable to stop the looming apocalypse Lucila and Ángel are witness to how society and power structures change overnight. In the aftermath they reunite with Antonella and with more understanding of their own sensitivities they roam the wastelands in their jeep fighting to restore the world they once knew.

Well, that’s quite something, isn’t it? Let’s break down what we have here. First, the general plot concerns a chauvenist pig getting a royal come-uppance much in the way of the French comedy As the Moon (1977) or What Women Want (2000). Ángel falling under the spell of Bea is lifted wholesale from Vampyros Lesbos (1971). The Morrígan cult scene will look familiar to anybody who has seen Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971), The Wicker Man (1973), or Satan's Slave (1976). The dead rising to do their witch mistress’ bidding sounds an awful lot like Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973). Ángel not being able to tell what is real and what is not reeks of The Game (1997) and him becoming a ghost in his own house reeks of The Sixth Sense (1999). Three misfits trying to stop the impending the impending apocalypse was, of course, the whole of The Day Of the Beast (1995). Finally, it concludes with the ending of The Terminator (1984) copied almost verbatim. There’s absolutely no reason why any of these should go together, but somehow they do. Dead Man Tells His Own Tale starts out as a conventional drama but soon transforms into a ghost horror, a zombie romp, a gothic horror, a Satanic cult flick and towards the end it briefly becomes a post-nuke yarn. Under no circumstance do any of these subgenres usually go together but here the transitions are seamless. That Dead Man Tells His Own Tale never devolves into incoherence attests to Forte’s vision.

Argentinian horror has come a long way since the halcyon days of Armando Bó ushering his bra-busting paramour Isabel Sarli through near-constant controversy and into superstardom, where “la diosa blanca de la sensualidad” Libertad Leblanc hopped across genres and neighbouring countries turning heads and dropping jaws along the way, where Emilio Vieyra’s kink-horror exploits with his trusty mujer sin ropas Gloria Prat and Susana Beltrán upset censors continue to speak to the fertile imagination of cult movie fanatics everywhere more than five decades later. It was here that Roger Corman and his Concorde Pictures struck a partnership with Aries Cinematográfica Argentina to produce some of the most gratuitous barbarian/sword-and-sorcery features with locals Alejandro Sessa and Héctor Olivera and a host of buxom American starlets willing to take their tops off for the right paycheck. Expect no such excesses here. While chaste by exploitation standards Dead Man Tells His Own Tale boasts former model and television personality Emilia Attías and Mariana Anghileri among its principal cast. Attías and Anghileri combine the best of Cristine Reyes, Anne Curtis, and Fernanda Urrejola. Thankfully they act better than Bolivian sexbomb Stephanie Herala. As important as a few pretty faces and hardbodies may be to the marketability of a production, the script of Nicolás Britos and director Forte matters even more. As a bonus, the special effects are a pretty even mix between practical and digital.

It’s a question for the ages why a pretty little fright flick like this ended up with the somewhat misleading Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2017) derived title that it did. As these things go, its closest cousin is Álex de la Iglesia’s Witching and Bitching (2013). Director Fabián Forte was nominated for a Golden Raven at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film (BIFFF) in 2017 and while he did not win, he might be one of Argentina’s directors to look out for. In the years since Forte has mainly been assistant directing and doing television work with no features for the immediate future. Dead Man Tells His Own Tale proves that there’s still some life to the old corpse and that Argentinian horror can still be relevant and exciting in this day and age. If titles such as Terrified (2017) are anything to go by Argentina is, just like any other country, swamped by the current trend of The Conjuring (2013) and Paranormal Activity (2007) imitations. As lamentable as that evolution is, it makes you long for simpler times when Latin America could be counted upon to deliver something different from its European and American peers. Is that still the case? That’s difficult to say. At least Dead Man Tells His Own Tale can content itself with its old school sensibilities and retro aesthetic.