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Plot: pregnant woman is murdered… and comes to haunt her wrongdoers.

Ghost with Hole (for once a pretty accurate translation of the original Sundel Bolong, released alternatively as Devil Woman internationally) is, if not the height of Indonesian horror, than at least one of its more enduring and recognizable entries. Directed by one of the country’s grandmasters, headlined by two of its biggest stars and an ensemble cast of familiar and beloved supporting players Ghost with Hole is not likely to scare away Western viewers with any brazen insanity. Maybe Hong Kong was more colorful, maybe Japan was quirkier but nothing compares to Indonesian horror. Suzzanna portrayed more spirits, witches, and mythical creatures than anyone else and Barry Prima cornered the action/adventure – and martial arts market. Ghost with Hole unites the two in a phantasmagoria of melodrama, bloodsoaked carnage and an absolute minimum of broad crude comedy. It probably also helps that Ghost with Hole doesn’t stray from the well-trodden paths of the typical Asian ghost horror. If you’re looking to explore Indonesian horror Ghost with Hole is an ideal startingpoint.

The Queen Of Indonesian Horror wasn’t created overnight. In fact it very well took a decade or so before Suzzanna was bestowed the prestigious title. As these things tend to go the woman that would become known in Indonesia (and beyond) for her portrayal of wronged women returning as vengeful spirits, witches, and assorted folkloric beings debuted inconspicuously at the tender age of 16 in the drama Girl's Dormitory (1958). Her performance was so electrifying that in 1960 she was given the Best Child Actress and Golden Harvest Award at the Asian Film Festival and recognized for her talent at the Indonesian Film Festival. A few years later she married actor Dicky Suprapto. Suzzanna’s star and profile continued to ascend with The Longest Dark (1970), Birth In the Tomb (1972), and Crazy Desire (1973). Suzzanna frequently worked with directors Ali Shahab, Liliek Sudjio, and H. Tjut Djalil, as well as Rapi Films and Soraya Intercine Film. One of her frequent co-stars were martial artist Barry Prima, Clift Sangra, and at even future director Ratno Timoer. By 1974 Suzzanna was separated from Suprapto.

The man that would shepherd her career to domestic and international acclaim and her most defining roles would be Sisworo Gautama Putra. He was the man behind the first (and, to our recollection, only) Indonesian cannibal romp on the Italian model Primitives (1980) as well as the American market oriented Wolf (1981) and Satan’s Slave (1982), imitations of American scare classics Friday the 13th (1980) and Phantasm (1979), respectively. Under Putra’s auspices Suzzanna became the leading lady in notable horror epics as Ghost with Hole, The Queen Of Black Magic (1981), Soundgarden (1982), and The Snake Queen (1982). In between her horrors Suzzanna did her fair share of dramas but that didn’t stop her from getting anoited best female antagonist in Indonesian film alongside Ruth Pelupessi, and Mieke Wijaya. She married Clift Sangra in 1983. From there she made The Snake Queen's Wedding (1983), Lake Eerie (1984), The Hungry Snake Woman (1986), Death-Spreading Heirloom (1990), the A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) inspired Pact with the Forces of Darkness (1991), and The Queen of the South Sea (1991). In 1993 Suzzanna announced her retirement from the silver screen after the passing of Sisworo Gautama Putra. Fifteen years later, on 15 October 2008, Suzzanna passed way, age 66, in her home in Potrobangsan, Magelang after complications from diabetes. Ghost with Hole is probably the only Suzzanna feature that international audiences know.

In Southeast Asian folklore a sundel bolong is the vengeful spirit of a wronged pregnant woman (usually a prostitute – when they’re not it’s a kuntilanak) unable to give birth when she was still alive. For that reason she has a large hole in her back when in spirit form. Ghost with Hole was made after Primitives (1980) and before Wolf (1981) and the poster promises something, “beautiful… exciting… unforgiving!” Just to be sure and cover all bases it also mentions, “This story is based on a folk legend.” Ah, yes. The sundel bolong. One of the more recognizable ghosts in Southeast Asian folklore and one of the ur-characters in Indonesian horror - and weird cinema from as long as it has been around. Her appearance is recognizable even to Western audiences. Who doesn’t get the shivers whenever a long ravenhaired ghost in a white sari appears? In the West Asian ghosts like this were popularized by modern J-horror classics as Ringu (2002) but they have existed for far longer and have been around since the dawn of Asian horror cinema at large.

In other scenes Suzzanna can be seen as a Pocong (shrouded ghost) and as a Kui'yang (Krasue in Thailand, Penanggal in Malaysia, or Manananggal in the Philippines) or the floating disembodied head of an attractive woman with the entrails hanging down from the neck. This was one of Suzzanna’s first and most iconic roles and has her like Barbara Steele before her in a double role. Everything’s here: the mysterious beautiful lady with the umbrella, the superstitious elderly (or lowly houseservant), and a shaman. Ghost with Hole also prominently features the Leopold Stokowski arrangement of the 1867 Modest Mussorgsky tone poem Night on Bald Mountain, famously used in Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) as well as light washes of serene ambient electronics. Sure, it might not be Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, or Michael Stearns but it works. The practical effects by Didin Syamsudin are wonderfully gooey and the optical effecs, while rudimentary at best, where and when they appear are on par with the Filipino, Indian, and Taiwanese horrors of the day.

Newlyweds Hendarto (Barry Prima, as Berry Prima) and Alisa (Suzzanna) are blissfully happy with their union after several years of courtship. Hendarto is a ship captain in the navy and Alisa lives a virtuous, chaste, and morally upright life devoted to both her husband and her faith. In their opulent mansion their every need and want is looked after by live-in elderly houseservant Bi Ijah (Marlia Hardi). On their wedding reception Hendarto receives a call to report for duty and prepare for a long-term deployment. Unable to consummate their relationship the young housewife spends her days frantically knitting in longing despair. One day Alisa receives a call for a modeling job from Rudy (Rudy Salam) of Rudy Boutique. In reality the boutique is merely a front for the prostitution ring he’s running with Mami (Ruth Pelupessi, as Ruth Pellupessy) the madam from the brothel Alisa worked at back in the days when she was a prostitute. The modeling job is merely a ruse for Rudy to try and force himself upon Alisa but she spurns his advances. That night Rudy sends his goons Jefri (H.I.M. Damsyik), Dadung (Eddy Hansudi), Tom (Rukman Herman), and Bram (El Koesno) to collect her for Mami’s prostitution ring. In a derelict factory Rudy and his thugs take turns raping Alisa. Taking the case to court Alisa is mischaracterized as a harlot having provoked the attack and the corrupt judiciary swiftly acquits the perpetrators. She returns home broken and it dawns upon her that she’s pregnant with her rapists’ babies.

Haunted by harrowing visions of deformed and disfigured infants, disgraced in the eyes of polite society, and bearing the burden of crushing shame and humiliation Alisa takes her own life by slitting her wrists. Upon hearing the news of his wife’s tragic passing Hendarto and Bi Ijah bury Alisa. Returning home that night Hendarto runs into a woman bearing a striking resemblance to his late wife introducing herself as Shinta (Suzzanna). Understandably sentimental he welcomes her into his now cold empty home. What Hendarto does not realize is that Shinta is Alisa’s spirit resurrected. Her new persona allows her to spend time with Hendarto but necessity forces her to hide from him that she’s a sundel bolong. Superstitious Bi Ijah almost immediately notices that something strange is afoot. From there Alisa vows to to kill her wrongdoers, one at a time. During her nocturnal hauntings Alisa meets a friendly pedicab driver (Dorman Borisman) and sympathetic foodstall owner Ceking (Bokir) as she ferociously gorges on soup and satay (sate). As Alisa continues to haunt the remaining thugs Rudy introduces Heti (Diana Suarkom) to new clients. As their numbers dwindle and Alisa continues to enact revenge from beyond the unholy grave the increasingly desperate thugs hire a shaman (or dukun) (Adang Mansyur). Who or what will be able to exorcise the tenebrous apparition from sowing death and destruction wherever she goes?

To the average viewer this stars nobody in particular when in fact Ghost with Hole features some of the most recognizable faces and biggest stars of Indonesian horror and weird cinema of the day. Barry Prima was in Primitives (1980) and The Devil’s Sword (1984), among many others. Dorman Borisman and H.I.M. Damsyik were in The Queen Of Black Magic (1981), The Snake Queen (1982) and The Snake Queen's Wedding (1983) (where Suzzanna shared the screen with Enny Beatrice on both occasions). Ruth Pelupessi got her own ghost horror with Black Magic Wizard (1981) that same year. Other notable pillars such as Enny Beatrice, Eva Arnaz, Gudi Sintara, and Enny Christina never commandeered the same kind of clout as did Suzzanna. Nor did they for that matter held the same international appeal. Enny Beatrice was something of a lesser queen with an illustrious oeuvre including, among others, Alligator Queen (1983), Bloody Hill (1985), Virgins From Hell (1987), and Jungle Virgin Force (1988). While Suzzanna was the queen of horror there interestingly was no corresponding king. Barry Prima sort of qualifies but he was anywhere and everywhere and did everything. He was that versatile an actor and martial artist. One of the real survivors of the Indonesia’s low budget hell is Lydia Kandou – she of Wolf (1981) and Sisworo Gautama Putra’s Arabian Nights epic Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1982) - who has carved out a legitimate career for herself as a respected and well-liked comedic and dramatic actress in the decades since. As for Suzzanna? Well, she was, is, and remains one of the highest Indonesian nobility, domestic and abroad.

Ghost with Hole is a well-deserved staple in Indonesian horror and the sundel bolong is one of the classic vengeful female ghosts of South Asian folklore. Both remain just as prevalent now as they were then. There’s no denying the fact that Suzzanna was, is, and remains a cultural behemoth, a domestic grand monument and an international export of global reverence and acclaim. She was sort of a pioneer to boot. Equivalent of what Maria Menado was to Malaysia and roughly what Amalia Fuentes was to the Philippines (although there’s a valid point to be made that Fuentes appeared in a greater variety of roles across a multitude of genres). As such it’s entirely logical that some of Suzzanna’s features would be ripe for a modern day reimagining. Ghost with Hole was very loosely (but very lovingly) reimagined as Suzzanna: Buried Alive (2018) that acted as both a remake and a heartfelt tribute. As things stand currently it was the first part of a proposed tripartite Suzzanna franchise, produced and curated by Rocky Soraya. It’s slated to be followed by Guntur Soeharjanto’s Suzzanna: Kliwon Friday Night (2023) and Suzzanna: Witchcraft of Life Melting Knowledge after that. Taking over the role of Suzzanna is Luna Maya. Maya evidently carefully studied Suzzanna as she recreated many of the real Suzzanna’s mannerisms. Few are given that kind of loving tribute and even fewer legacies continue to resonate with audiences that long. A Suzzanna biopic is inevitably bound to follow, hopefully with Luna Maya too.

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.