Horror de Lucha Libre: A Brief History of Mexico’s Luchador Films

The roots of lucha libre are believed to have begun during the Second Franco-Mexican war. A free-style form of Grego-Roman wrestling was developed and became regionally popular in the 1900s. The Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre was founded in 1933, giving the sport a national foothold and is the oldest professional wrestling promotion in existence. The beloved sporting event became a national obsession in the 1950s following regular television broadcasts. Inspiring devoted followings and subcultures that immortalized wrestlers in comic books and cinema. These luchador movies would transform the high-flying athletes into crime fighting folk heroes. Ripening lucha libre into an undisputed part of Mexico’s cultural heritage.

Behind The Mask

The most well-known luchador star of the ring and the screen is El Santo. Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta’s professional wrestling career would span 5 decades, using the name “El Santo” for the first time in 1942. Initially reluctant to appear on film, Huerta would relent in 1958 to great commercial success. Starring in 52 films, Santo would become a Mexican symbol of justice.  

Legendary wrestling rival of Santo is Alejandro Muñoz Moreno. Professionally known as The Blue Demon since 1948, Moreno began his career in the ring as a heel. In 1952, Santo defeated and unmasked his tag team partner, prompting Blue Demon to become a good guy. Producer of luchador movies, Enrique Vergara, sought to bring another wrestler into pictures. After discovering Moreno, Blue Demon would go on to star in 25 action and fantasy films. Of those, Santo would co-star in nine of them.

In 1966, Vergara would then discover Aarón Rodríguez Arellano, an international heavyweight luchador. Arellano was offered the role of Mil Mascaras, the first character created specifically for the movies. Mil Mascaras would star in 20 luchador movies, in which he’d make several costume changeups as the man of a million masks.

Not to be outdone by the dudes in the ring, Las Luchadoras were a rotating troop of wrestling ladies. Appearing in 6 films, the gals would face off with Satanists, mad scientists, and sometimes each other in the ring. Perhaps the most recognizable actress of the Las Luchadoras films is Lorena Velázquez. Iconic femme fatale of Mexican cinema, her roles in luchador movies evolved from side parts in Santo flicks to leading villainesses. Velázquez would also appear as Gloria/Loreta Venus in 3 different wrestling films. 

Mexican Horror

Mexico’s horror genre got its proper start in the 30s with the films of Juan Bustillo. But it wasn’t until 1953 that it would outshine the dramas and westerns in most of the country’s movie houses. The success of Chano Urueta’s El Monstruo Resucitado had audiences begging for more. Officially ringing in the golden age of Mexican cinema. The movies would echo the iconography of Universal and Hammer horror. Gothically stylized scenes with expressionist cinematography, injecting local lore like The Aztec Mummy and La Llorona.

With television of the ‘50s dominated by the popularity of lucha libre, big screen adaptations were a natural transition. The flashy pageantry of costumed heroes in action would blend perfectly with fantasy story lines. Hardboiled detective plots and crime rings of luchador movies began to take on more supernatural and science fiction elements. Proving to be enormously popular, they remained a staple of Mexico’s commercial cinema until the mid-1970s.

American producer, K Gordon Murray, launched Mexican horror to a wider audience through his distribution of foreign films. The exploitation maven would rewrite and overdub his movies for English-speaking audiences at Soundlab Inc. While his catalog contained many adult and children’s films, over half of the titles were horror from Mexico. Murray was particularly fond of luchador movies and contributed to the success of 2 of the most popular, Santo VS The Vampire Women and The Wrestling Women VS The Aztec Mummy

Films of Note 

There is no shortage of mad scientists and reanimated corpses in luchador movies. Santo Vs. Los Zombies (1962) is considered the first real Santo movie where he is established as a crime fighter. A crazed doctor reanimates dead murderers and thieves to do his bidding. Only Santo can stop these minions from robbing jewelry stores and setting fires to orphanages. 

Las Luchadoras Vs. El Médico Asesino (1963) offers up an evil surgeon experimenting with brain transplants and needing more specimens. Kidnapping women and creating a mindless lady wrestler that Gloria Venus and Golden Rubi must defeat in the ring. Director, Rene Cardona, would reimagine his own film twice in 1969. Las Luchadoras Vs. El Robot Asesino would have an identical plot and borrow aesthetic from the British television series, The Avengers. Again, the same year would follow the surreal Night of The Bloody Apes. A similar movie with a devil-themed luchadora and featuring footage of open-heart surgery. 

Alien invasion was a common trope among luchador sci-fi films. The campiest of which was Santo Vs. La Invasion De Los Marcianos (1967). All of Mexico’s TV transmissions are interrupted by 3-eyed aliens in gold lamé costumes. Sick of humans’ nuclear weapons, they demand peace and brotherhood through fear and destruction. Blue Demon would get a few alien invasion films of his own. In true B-movie style, Aranas Infernales (1968) brings spiders from space, seeking brains to feed their dying queen. Naturally, mankind’s fate is settled in the ring, complete with a were-spider transformation and hand puppets. 

While several luchador movies would feature Count Dracula going toe to toe with masked fighters, the vampire woman trope proved much more successful in the genre. Santo Vs. Las Mujeres Vampiro (1962) give the audience a clan of vampire women seeking a successor for Queen Zorina. But the clan needs human blood for a proper glow up and decided to avenge an ancestor while they’re at it. Mil Mascaras’ lady vampire movie, Las Vampiras (1969), finds him running afoul of a clan following a plane crash. As bodies pile up, he must defeat the vampire women as they fight amongst themselves with interpretive dance and dueling fire poi.

Mummies and werewolves were incredibly popular in luchador movies, showing off their direct inspiration from Universal horror films. Along with the monster mashups that double billed multiple heroes like Santo y Blue Demon Vs. Dracula y El Hombre Lobo (1973). While the films that pitted masked men against different descendants of Dr. Frankenstein are representations of Hammer Film influence. Such as Santo Vs. La Hija De Frankenstein (1972) and Santo y Blue Demon Vs. Dr. Frankenstein (1974). Lastly, the homage to gothic horror is best represented in La Sombra Del Murcielago (1968). A luchador version of Phantom Of The Opera where a disfigured wrestler kidnaps a beautiful singer and Blue Demon must come to the rescue. 

From The Ring To The Screen

Though low-budget and mass-produced, luchador movies falling into the horror genre have maintained their popularity into modern times. For lovers of exploitation, these films continue on as throwbacks or updated gritty formats. Mil Mascaras concluded a film trilogy in 2015 with Aztec Revenge. 2006’s Wrestlemaniac honors its raunchy roots with Rey Misterio Sr. as an insane luchador slasher.

Just as lucha libre is the direct inspiration for the flair and showmanship of WWE, luchador movies have influenced today’s athletes. Duane Johnson and Dave Bautista are now A-listers and casting pro-wrestlers in horror films is more commonplace than ever. Horror and professional wrestling entertain through anxiety and suspense. The union of both within cinema is a sensational delight with a rich heritage.  

Further Reading 

The Mexican Masked Wrestler and Monster Filmography by Robert Michael “Bobb” Cotter

The films of Chano Urueta

The films of Rene Cardona

Life and career of K. Gordon Murray

Prescribed Nightmares: Healthcare in Horror Cinema

Medical quackery, mad doctors, and unorthodox lab experiments are the stuff science fiction nightmares are made of. The medical horror trope is rich with enough sub-genres to petrify patients for decades. With an endless supply of entries, this article gives a routine examination to notable healthcare horror films. Side effects may include chills, paranoia, and trouble sleeping. Currently, there is no known cure. 

Human Guinea Pigs

Healthy bodies and unhealthy bank accounts often find themselves on the doorstep of pharmacology. Fortune favors the brave when renting out physical autonomy for experimental drugs. Yet the transparency of chemical messiahs should always be considered when the hazards of medicine are in play. The Biotrial Rennes clinical of 2016 resulted in 1 death and 5 injured. The 2006 UK med trial for TGN1412 caused organ failure in 6 men. The latter incident would inspire Ian Clark’s healthcare horror film The Facility. Seven volunteers enroll in a 2-week research project at a remote medical lab. Injected with a new drug called Pro-9, some of the first side effects to manifest are disconcerting, to say the least. The tension is ratcheted up by nightfall when the facility locks down. Most of the horror happens offscreen in this claustrophobic siege as test subjects fight to survive. This film could easily register as a prequel to 28 Days Later. Released the same year with a bigger budget is the Canadian-American horror film Bloodworx. College friends decide to earn side money for a spring break trip by signing up for pharmaceutical testing. RXZ-19 is a new allergy drug with regenerative side effects that are dangerously addictive. The lead researcher quickly loses control of her subjects. Primitive instincts are reactivated and the patients turn on staff and each other. But not all human lab rats get the choice to participate. Sometimes it’s mandatory in detention centers. In Patients of a Saint, also known as Inmate Zero, St. Leonard’s Island is a repurposed prison for the world’s most violent criminals. Extreme medical trials are conducted on prisoners and the experiment quickly goes wrong. Guards and inmates must unite to survive as the infection spreads in the penitentiary. Will zombie island stay on lock down?

The Doctor is In…sane

Medical professionals have always been a goldmine for the horror genre. Bringing us the world-renowned vivisectionist, Dr. Moreau, and the kinky side of Dr. Henry Jekyll. These psycho practitioners have some of the most intimate access to us. Oblivious patients willingly put their lives in rubber gloved hands. In The Surgeon, little Julian is a witness to his younger brother’s murder at the hands of a doctor. Traumatizing him into a career of mad science, he utilizes terminal patients for experiments until he’s reported by colleagues. Returning to the hospital that condemned his work, he takes revenge by harvesting the humors of the staff. Anyone that has gone to urgent care would agree that the mean girls from high school grow up to be nurses. Yet nobody considers these career paths being revenge driven. Lisa Zane stars in The Nurse, a cold-blooded home caregiver that slithers into a paralytic patient’s family. Holding him responsible for her father’s death, she slowly destroys his world from within. With all the high contrast grime of a 90’s slasher, Larry Drake is Dr. Giggles. An escaped mental patient is about to make a house call to the town that destroyed his family practice. Fixating on a teenage girl with a heart condition, he slashes through her friends as they begin their summer vacation. A healthcare horror comedy that can be downright slapstick at times, Drake steals the show as the demented doc. Delivering Freddy Kreuger-esque one-liners with a straight face, Dr. Giggles is tragically under-rated. When the Mid-Aughts’ grindhouse revival finally got its hands on nurse pulp fiction, it had to be 3D. Nurse 3D is referred to as the film that ruined Paz De la Huerta’s career. This healthcare horror casts her as Abby, nurse by day and serial killer by night. Seducing and butchering unfaithful husbands before deciding to mentor a recent nursing school graduate. A trashy throwback to 90’s erotic thrillers but with all the sleaze and splatter of a drive-in b-film.

I’m Afraid It’s Terminal

The patient is a role of vulnerability we all step into at some point. The anxiety from exposure and dismissal is the most common form of everyday healthcare horror. Medical gaslighting can separate us from the narrative, leading to distrust of the body and doubting perceptions. The Power puts these institutional ‘pecking-orders’ on full display. Set during the politically complicated UK power outages of the 70s, running parallel is a young nurse working her first night at the East London Royal Infirmary. A paranormal revenge tale taking notes from The Exorcist, Nurse Valery is haunted by hospital secrets as well as her own. Particularly vexatious with themes of abusing power and voices silenced by any means necessary. In the 80s slasher, X-Ray, a divorced mother is given the run around with her new insurance. Attempting to collect physical exam results from a hospital with a bad reputation on Valentine’s weekend. Susan is led through a medical labyrinth of humiliation, bouncing from doctor to doctor. No one ever bothers to tell Susan what’s wrong with her, nor do they listen to her cries for help as she’s strapped to a gurney and prepared for emergency surgery. Little does she know her records are being tampered with by a psychopath in scrubs! The psychological thriller, Visiting Hours, focuses more on developing the dark profile of the antagonist, yet speaks volumes on inherent misogyny in medicine. Following being attacked in her apartment, an outspoken reporter finds herself in the hospital. Barely allowed any rest by detectives and well-wishers, she receives a visitor that seeks to finish what he started. Knowing she’s in danger, her pleas are regarded as symptoms of stress as nurses and patients start dropping like flies.

Secret Society Sanitariums

From the Asclepius cults of ancient Greece to the Knights Hospitallers, occult elements of healing remain integrated in modern-day hospitals. These sanctuaries for the sick and injured are the ultimate liminal space on earth. Between birth and death, hospitals become imprinted with the intensity of human emotion. It’s no wonder there seems to be an endless supply of haunted hospitals across the world. But with faith comes followers, and sometimes they’re dogmatic edge lords. Secret societies and cults hiding within the medical profession gives us some of the best healthcare horror. Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance is a comedy thriller emulating hardboiled detective film noir. An aspiring comic book artist meets the woman of his dreams in the streets of New York City, just before she collapses. Quickly whisked off by an outdated looking ambulance, the artist discovers she hasn’t been admitted to any nearby hospitals. Others have started disappearing in a similar looking ambulance and they all have diabetes. Is it a human trafficking ring or a mad science conspiracy? It’s Victor from The Young & The Restless and his laboratory hidden above a disco. Anatomie is a German horror film starring Franka Potente (of Run Lola Run fame) as a medical student. Awarded a highly coveted scholarship to the University of Heidelberg, she recognizes the cadaver in her anatomy class. Upon investigating his mysterious death, Potente uncovers an ancient secret society that performs experiments on ‘undesirables’. On top of everything else, her grandfather is a highly celebrated professor. The Canadian horror film, The Void, is set in a half burned out hospital running on a skeleton crew. When a chaotic bloodbath begins, the radios go out and the hospital becomes surrounded by robed figures armed with weapons. Someone has opened a gate in the hospital’s basement that leads to another dimension. All the hidden medical experiments begin to mingle with the Lovecraftian abominations crawling out of the portal.

Alternative Medicine

Those repulsed by allopathic medical practices often explore their other options of healthcare horror. Opening themselves to esoteric healing and mysticism that was popular with the Universal Medicine cult and The Source Family. At the height of the neon fitness craze of the 80s, it’s no pain no gain at the Death Spa. Beefcake Michael owns and operates a high-tech health club with his brother-in-law. But when Michael’s new girlfriend becomes a member, his late wife rises from beyond to possess the gym equipment. About as schlocky as it gets with bumbling detectives and weight machines mangling juice heads. Featuring Ken Foree in a side part, better known to the genre from Dawn of The Dead and From Beyond. 2016’s A Cure For Wellness is based on Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain. A financial services CEO vanishes to a Swiss “wellness center”, built upon an aquifer. Lockhart, an executive, is blackmailed by the board to retrieve him before a company merger. He discovers the eel infested institution has a dark history of incestuous bloodlines and medical experiments. Trapped among brainwashed patients, Lockhart realizes they’re all willing subjects for Dr. Volmer. Best described as a less lovable Dr. Phibes, operating from the Poolrooms. If you’ve ever believed the medical industry keeps people sick to financially drain them, this film will get to you. The British healthcare horror comedy, Horror Hospital, jumps right into treatments as 2 bandaged patients running through the woods are mowed down by a bladed Rolls Royce. When a young songwriter is kicked out of the band, he decides a holiday to Brittlehurst Manor might do him good. A pseudo “health farm” located in a gothic castle surrounded by an acid swamp. Michael Gough plays the head of the hospital, Dr. Storm, heavily stylized after Bela Lugosi. The faucets run with blood and dinner guests are prone to screaming fits. The film was an obvious favorite for Richard O’Brien. Hippies beware! Your health retreat might end with a lobotomy!

Inconclusive Results

Over the course of the pandemic, it has become near impossible to trust the healthcare system. Devolving into a purgatory of bureaucracy and generating corporate profits, the amount of unnecessary evils makes it difficult to heal. While your chances of being a victim of mad science in this day and age are slim, they’re not exactly zero. Yet in the face of an emergency we have little options but to trust medical professionals with our lives. Stay vigilant and get well soon.

Further Reading

The Pathology of Horror (Medical Horror Films) – IMDb

“The Darkside of Medicine: 5 Doctors Who Became Serial Killers” – MDLinx

“My Life As a Full-Time Human Guinea Pig” – VICE

Maniac Mansion: The Point & Click Horror Comedy Game

Graphical adventures were the rising star of gaming in the 1980s. A genre defined with interactive storylines driven by exploration and puzzles. Many offered players a text parser to input commands. This could become a vexing experience to get the precise arrangement of words to advance the game. Eventually the point-and-click interface was adapted as a standard for interactive fiction, beginning with an unlikely project published by LucasArts in 1987. Borrowing heavily from B-films and fantasy comics, Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick created the dark humored gaming experience, Maniac Mansion.

The Game History/Censorship

Gilbert and Winnick met in 1984 while working at LucasArts. Both fans of sci-fi schlock, they became fast friends over a shared love for horror films. After the completion of Koronus Rift, the pair toyed with the idea of a horror comedy game of their own. Originally mapping their ideas as a paper-and-pencil game, they set their plot in a haunted house and added popular horror tropes. The format of King’s Quest I would inspire the vehicle for Gilbert and Winnick’s brain project. An interactive adventure game with a point-and-click interface instead of fumbling with a parser. This was the birth of the SCUMM engine, an acronym for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion. This programming engine featured a verb/object design paradigm and was utilized for many other games. After 2 grueling years of development, Gilbert and Winnick’s Maniac Mansion game debuted at the 1987 Consumer Electronics Show. One of LucasArts’s first self-published games, it was initially released for the Commodore 64 and Apple II. An MS-DOS port followed in 1988, along with ports for Atari ST, Amiga, MAC, and NES in 1990.

“Don’t be a tuna head!”

During Maniac Mansion’s game development for Commodore 64, Lucasfilm had censored profanity in the dialog much to the irritation of Gilbert. Resulting in some ridiculous 80s lingo like “tuna head”. The game would later be pulled from shelves in Toys R Us, just a few months after release. All due to a letter from a single consumer about the word “lust” being printed on the game box. Shortly after being ported to NES, Nintendo of America expressed concern over suggestive content. Aiming for a younger audience, Nintendo requested LucasArts tone down what they deemed inappropriate content. Such as pixelated allusions to nudity and graphic dialog like the word “kill”. The most laughable censoring issue was the phrase “NES SCUMM created by” in the credits sequence. Not realizing it was the name of the development engine, Nintendo took it as a direct insult and requested it be removed. Funny enough the company somehow missed the ability to microwave a live hamster.

Gameplay

The Maniac Mansion game begins 20 years prior with a meteor crash-landing in the backyard of the titular building. Purple and sentient, the meteor enslaves the mind of homeowner, Dr. Fred Edison. On the anniversary of the incident in present time, our brainwashed doctor has kidnapped Sandy Pantz. A local teenage girl that Dr. Fred plans to suck the brains out of for an experiment. Sandy’s boyfriend, Dave Miller, rallies a handful of his friends from school in an attempt to infiltrate the Edison mansion and rescue her. Punks and nerds unite to put a stop to this mad science, encountering the rest of the Edison family along the way. Dr. Fred’s raunchy wife, Nurse Edna and their military obsessed son, Weird Ed. Also inhabiting the house are two sentient tentacles, a kind green tentacle and evil purple one. The Maniac Mansion game is unique in allowing the player to pick three of seven characters for the rescue mission. Each defined by their various skills, which allow for different solutions to many of the game’s puzzles. Syd is a new waver, Michael the school photographer, Jeff the surfer, Razor a punk singer, Wendy an aspiring writer, and Bernard the token geek. Players can only control a single character at a time and switch via the “New Kid” command. Most actions are carried out by selecting verbs on the screen and applying them to an object. If any one of the kids are captured by the Edisons, they are thrown into the dungeon and must be rescued by any character who still has their freedom.

“Oh good! More brain donors!”  

The development team took a lot of inspiration from their favorite horror films to aid in the game’s creation. Winnick referenced the 1969 film, Horror House, describing it as “a ridiculous teen horror movie”, in which teenagers inside a building were killed one by one without any thought of leaving. Gilbert often expressed his fondness of the mad scientist trope, citing horror films of the 80s like The Fly and Reanimator. But the film Creepshow would really set the tone of the game’s premise, specifically the segment “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”. Starring Stephen King, it follows a farmer who encounters a fuzzy meteor. The rest of the Edison family was shaped after characters from EC Comics and Warren Publishing magazines which specialized in horror and science fiction from the 40s and 50s. Other sources have listed films like The Little Shop of Horrors, Night of The Comet, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street as inspiration for the Maniac Mansion game. The actual house was designed in detail to resemble the main building on Skywalker Ranch where LucasArts was located and George Lucas himself kept his office.

The Legacy Lives On

In 1993, LucasArts released the sequel Day of the Tentacle. Set 5 years after the events of the Maniac Mansion game, the purple tentacle becomes exposed to toxic waste. Driving him insane, he sets on a course for world domination. This prompts the green tentacle to reach out to Bernard from the original game. Bernard and his unique roommates must utilize a time machine to stop the purple tentacle from taking over the world. The game came with a fully playable copy of Maniac Mansion hidden as an Easter egg within the game. In 1990 a Maniac Mansion sitcom was created by Eugene Levy for the Family Channel. Loosely based on the game, Dr. Fred Edison was the only character to crossover as an “eccentric inventor”. The Edison family reside in a mansion in an upscale suburb and their lives revolve around Fred’s creations. All American mad science experiments conducted in a basement laboratory powered by a meteorite. The series lasted 3 seasons with 66 episodes.

LucasArts’ Maniac Mansion game wasn’t initially a commercial success, rather developing a slow and loyal cult following. Calling forth an audience that was deeply entwined with horror fandom to embrace gaming culture. Along the way it accidentally ended up revolutionizing the adventure game genre while solidifying LucasArts as a quality developer. With several different endings, multiple solutions to puzzles, and purposely linked up no-win situations, Maniac Mansion cultivates a high replay factor for gamers and horror fans alike.    

Further Reading

Maniac Mansion Fan Site

Nintendo Censoring of Maniac Mansion

Splatterhouse: History and Inspiration Behind The Classic Arcade Game

Before there was a video game content rating system, the creators of Dig Dug and Galaga were blazing trails with a different kind of game, dripping with graphic content. In the late 80’s, Namco unleashed the gore-fest known as Splatterhouse into arcades and home ports. Setting the cornerstone for the future of horror gaming and on-screen violence.

“May be inappropriate for young children…and cowards.”

While horror games had been churned out for years on home computers and consoles, scarier aspects were left to the player’s imagination. The depictions of violence and gore in gaming had a very limited scope. That is until the Japanese game developer, Namco, decided to push arcade boundaries as well as break their own mold. Namco was best known, at the time, for the creation of cute and cartoony games like Pac-Man and Mappy. In November of 1988, under the direction of Shigeru Yokoyama, the Splatterhouse arcade game was released. Influenced by popular Western slasher cinema and parental outrage, Namco was counting on shock factor to bring players to the joystick. Unlike other side-scrolling brawler games, Splatterhouse was hyper-focused on detailed gore and graphic violence. Purposely drawing attention to the gruesome content resulted in the arcade cabinet’s immediate success in Japan and Europe. A slower cult following developed in the United states as Splatterhouse wasn’t widely distributed to Western arcades. Lore surrounding the game claim’s its content stirred controversy resulting in a ban while others believe it was a copyright infringement. Home ports that followed for TurboGrafx-16 and MegaDrive would bring a censored version to wider audiences with toned down splatter and character changes.

Gameplay

The original Splatterhouse arcade game didn’t offer much of a backstory. Only presenting the player with an opening sequence of two figures seeking shelter from a rainstorm in a dark mansion. It would be 1990’s home port that would expand on the game’s plot. In the instruction manual, the figures running through the woods are identified as Rick and Jennifer. College sweethearts and parapsychology students that have traveled to West Mansion for a research project. The West Mansion is locally known as “Splatterhouse”, rumored to contain mutated abominations created in a lab by the homeowner, Dr. Henry West. As they enter the mansion and the door slams behind them, Jennifer screams bloody murder and a game over screen appears. But death is only the beginning. Rick awakens from his own unknown demise in a dungeon, resurrected by the “Terror Mask”. An ancient artifact containing a spirit that grants super-human strength to whomever puts it on. Attaching itself to Rick, he is transformed into a rampaging monster out to save Jennifer and take revenge on West Mansion.

A 2-page advertisement for the Turbo-Grafx 16 port was released as a mini comic of Splatterhouse’s origins. Featuring Rick and Jennifer entering the West Mansion, being attacked, and the Terror Mask fusing with our anti-hero.

A Real Video Game Nasty

For any fan of contemporary slasher figures and horror cinema, the main appeal of the Splatterhouse arcade game is guessing who’s who. A game within a game of spotting all the references in weapons, enemies, and backgrounds. Most are quick to point out the resemblance of Rick’s mask to Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th franchise. Beyond the beloved horror icons of the 80s, the concept of a haunted mask hadn’t yet found its true voice. One of the first horror film entries is the 1965 Japanese supernatural drama, Onibaba. A lost samurai passes on the curse of a jealous demoness with the use of a Hannya mask. Almost 2 decades later we would be reintroduced to mask horror with a disconnected sequel to John Carpenter’s best-known movie. Halloween III: Season of The Witch’s plot was a collision between tech and the occult at the Silver Shamrock mask factory. Italy would step up to the under used trope in 1985 with Lamberto Bava’s Dèmoni. Giving audiences a plague of demonic possession when an ancient mask is tied in with a horror movie promotion.

The second most notable horror reference in the franchise is our villain, Dr. Henry West. Highly regarded in the parapsychology community as a brilliant man, his secretive experiments within his mansion have unleashed Lovecraftian horrors on the world. A direct homage to H.P. ‘s 1922 novelette Herbert West-Reanimator and the 1985 horror comedy film that followed. But it is Lovecraft’s obsession with old dark houses that gives the Splatterhouse arcade game its namesake. Short stories such as From Beyond, The Dreams in the Witch-House, and The Shunned House all offer a residence where either mad science or occult ritual take place. Creating massive rifts of trauma that transform the very structure into a living abomination itself. Splatterhouse’s West Mansion is not only filled with hideous monstrosities but actually births them into reality.

Several other horror films of the 80s are remarked on lending inspiration to the bad guys that come for Rick. Deadly Spawn slugs and Poltergeist mirror reflections are mixed in with xenomorph chest bursting and Cronenbergian fetus mutants. The chainsaw-armed boss called “Biggyman” could have borrowed again from Jason on Friday the 13th II, with a burlap bag over his head. Or it might have been a reference to the Phantom in The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

The majority of the Splatterhouse arcade game’s tributes fall under 1987’s Evil Dead II. The final act of Stage II is an entire room and its contents shuddering at the presence of Rick. Attacked by flying furniture and squaring off with a hung portrait flapping about. Stage V gives you pools of sentient severed hands crawling about and a few giving the finger. But it is the moment when Rick encounters Jennifer laid out on a sofa, that leads me to emphasize Evil Dead II. She awakens to transform into a hideous monstrosity that reminds me of Ted Raimi as a Deadite Granny. Rick has no choice but to kill his own girlfriend, in an anguished moment once shared with Ash as he chainsawed Linda.  

“It begins again…!”

The success of the Splatterhouse arcade game in Japan was followed in 1989 with the first and lesser-known sequel of the franchise. Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti was a Japanese exclusive for the Famicom system. More of a cutesy parody of the original, the graphic violence was removed and it was marketed to a younger audience. Wanpaku Graffiti deviated from the original storyline and featured even more horror pop-culture references that made the game downright silly, at times. Fans continue to debate whether or not it was intended to be a prequel to the original game. In 1992, Namco released Splatterhouse 2 for Sega Genesis. The game’s plot would pick up 3 months after the events of the Splatterhouse arcade game. Rick plagued with nightmares and tempted by the spirit of the Terror Mask to return to West Mansion and revive Jennifer’s soul. 1993 followed with Splatterhouse 3 on Sega, with the disruption of happily ever after. Rick and Jennifer are now married with a child as Dr. West’s horrors once again invade their lives. 2010’s Splatterhouse is a retelling of the original story for X360 and PS3. Updating the 16-bit world to a modern-day bloodbath that is packed with horror reference easter eggs. Following in the arcade cabinet’s footsteps of valuing blood n’ guts over gameplay, the reboot is incredibly entertaining for a gore-hound. In fact, the entire franchise is highly recommended to fans of retro horror gaming, if for nothing else than the nods to hack n’ slash cinema throughout each installment.  

A Putrid Pioneer of Horror Gaming

It may not have been the first horror game, but the Splatterhouse arcade game reshaped the genre. Giving the player the opportunity to be a Jason Voorhees knock-off that punches bats and chops levitating heads with a medieval axe. Namco reached new audiences with gruesomely detailed carnage and solid Eldritch elements; a formula still prevalent in modern horror games. Without Splatterhouse we may have never gotten Friday the 13th: The Game for PS4 and Xbox One.

“If coin-ops could give out smells, this one would reek of an abattoir.”

In a 1989 Splatterhouse review in Computers and Video Games magazine

Further Reading

Splatterhouse fan-site “The West Mansion” 

Splatterhouse arcade emulator (in browser)

Zombies Ate My Neighbors: 90’s Kid Horror at Its Finest

In early 1994, I was tired of renting the same old Super Nintendo games for the weekend. Unable to afford the popular titles at $50-60 each, I picked through a “sale” crate at Toys-R-Us. This was my introduction to the comedy horror game known as Zombies Ate My Neighbors. A sleeper success video game that paid homage to horror movies. Released before the Entertainment Software Rating Board existed, it stirred a bit of controversy and amassed a tight community of fans over the last 25 years. Resurrected on modern platforms in June of 2021, Zombies Ate My Neighbors remains a staple of up-all-night games to play over summer break.

It Came From LucasArts

George Lucas founded a video game development group in 1982, to run alongside his film company. In a 1990 reorganization, the division was rebranded as LucasArts. Becoming known for its point and click adventure games like the Monkey Island series and Sam & Max Hit The Road. In 1993 LucasArts developed a run and gun game with all the wholesome charm of an 80’s adventure and a tribute to scary movies. Zombies Ate My Neighbors was published by Konami for the Super NES with a Sega Genesis port following halfway through development. A relatively simple game to play, with 55 levels it was nearly impossible to master. While not initially a hit upon release, the game quickly gained a cult following for its dedication to drive-in B-films, a catchy soundtrack, and tongue in cheek humor.  

Gameplay

One or two player game selection is between two Everytown USA teenagers, Zeke and Julie. Their sleepy suburbia descends into chaos as lab-experiments of the deranged Dr. Tongue invade the neighborhood. It’s up to our plucky protagonists to save terrorized residents from the abominations of mad science.

“There are monsters, werewolves, slimy blobs, and a bushel of other hideous creatures out to capture innocent people. They’re attacking your neighbors, your neighbors’ kids, their dog, and any other human they can find. It is up to you to use any means possible to save the victims before the bad guys get them.”

Zombies Ate My Neighbors Game Manual

Initially armed with only a squirt gun, the player scavenges abandoned houses and empty malls for anything that can be used as a weapon. Ordinary household items like soda cans, kitchen plates, and weed whackers. Rarer objects like magic potions, inflatable clown punching bags, and holy relics will also aid the player to wage battle against the undead. The number of foes and bosses in Zombies Ate My Neighbors will not disappoint lovers of horror and sci-fi movies. While the namesake zombies are relatively simple to kill, their speed and larger numbers make them a danger to the player and victims you’re trying to rescue. The classic Universal monsters require more hits from specific weapons to take down. Werewolves, mummies, vampires, and Gill-men from that lagoon are just the beginning. The “Attack of The 50ft” genre of B-films are referenced with giant ants, spiders, and a titanic sized toddler boss, flattening everything in its path. Zombie Ate My Neighbors doesn’t shy away from deep space double features with a rendition of the blob, mushroom men, plant-like pod people. Even the design for the cheerleader-hungry Martians resembles the Mars Attacks Topps trading cards of 1962. Contemporary horror cinema is also referenced with Leatherface/Jason Voorhees looking “chainsaw maniacs” and anxiety inducing “snakeoids” straight out of Tremors. Xennial gamers will appreciate “Tommy The Evil Doll” having grown up with the first 3 entries of the Child’s Play franchise and the My Buddy doll. Wandering through a toy factory maze, the player is pursued by relentless dolls chopping at your feet with cleavers. Just when you think you’ve defeated a wave, their flaming plastic carcasses continue to chase you down.

With a staggering 55 levels, bonus stages, and a password system, few kids of the mid-90s made it through Zombies Ate My Neighbors. The few persistent players that did complete the game would discover a special credits level called “Monsters Among Us“. The player is transported to LucasArts headquarters to ransack and rescue while interacting with the game’s development team. Even George Lucas makes a cameo to greet and instruct you to get back to work.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe

Though Zombies Ate My Neighbors was originally created for SNES, the last-minute Sega conversion suffered. Lacking elements of what made the game so great with a smaller screen, duller graphics, and a toned-down soundtrack. Controls were extra frustrating to rotate through on Sega’s three buttons versus SNES’s four. However, Nintendo would staunchly reject any depictions of blood and censored the SNES version with a purple slime while Sega stayed bloody. The controversy continued in Europe and Australia with the game’s title being changed to just Zombies. The chainsaw maniacs would also be changed to axe-wielding lumberjacks and all appearances of blood were now a green ooze.

Ghoul Patrol

In 1994, JVC Musical Industries licensed the Zombies Ate My Neighbors gameplay engine for a similarly styled game. LucasArts outsourced most of the development work to Motion Pixel before deciding to publish it as a sequel called Ghoul Patrol for SNES. Zeke and Julie return as protagonists in the game. Checking out the latest morbid museum exhibit, they accidentally unleash demons and spirits from an ancient book. Ghoul Patrol only has five levels but the monsters require more hits to be defeated. The game also updates Zeke and Julie’s scavenged arsenal with crossbows, plasma and laser guns. While it doesn’t quite capture the humor of the first game, Ghoul Patrol is a worthy follow-up. Both games were released by Disney Interactive in summer of 2021 for Steam, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.

Coming to Theaters?

John Darko, known for his work on the Insidious franchise, was announced to have written a script for a Zombies Ate My Neighbors movie in 2011. Describing it as “John Hughes meets Judd Apatow meets George A. Romero”. Set during a graduation block party, Darko regards the project as a coming-of-age Zom-Com. Giving subtle hints as a modern tribute to 80s classics such as The Monster Squad and Night of The Comet. As of 2013, Daily Dead reported that Darko’s project was alive and well. Though John Darko has reportedly been working on a television series called Nowheresville. The premise of which sounds similar to the narrative of Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

While it feels like the franchise never got the recognition it deserved, the ZAMN fan community is as dedicated as ever. With an impressive amount of fan art, cosplay, game mods, and short film tributes, you’ll feel right at home with the cult following. Whether or not you conquer all 55 levels of Zombies Ate My Neighbors, just remember at your next block party that no neighbor gets left behind.

Further Reading

SNES Game Guide  

Game Cheats

Zombies Ate My Neighbors Doom II Total Conversion Mod by Dude27th

With These Hands: A History of Mad Love

The 1930s were peak in Hollywood’s Golden Age of horror. Universal led the way with its legendary monster movies and Paramount added sophisticated suspense to the genre. In 1935, MGM decided to release the horror-thriller Mad Love, directed by Karl Freund and starring Peter Lorre in his American debut. Lorre, a highly publicized talent, harnessed a dark glamor with his emotive acting. Bringing an amalgamation of repulsiveness and vulnerability into each role that the audience sympathizes with against their will.

His Love Was a Pitiful…Hopeless Madness

The famous surgeon, Dr. Gogol sits in private box at the “Théatre des Horreurs”, just as he has for the last 47 nights. Blissfully gazing upon Madame Yvonne Orlac as she is tortured on stage as the Duchess. Having sent flowers and notes to her dressing room for each performance, he finally approaches her dressing room on closing night. Yet he is crushed to learn she is married to concert pianist, Stephen Orlac. As he wraps up a tour, Yvonne retires from the stage to join him at last. The dejected Gogol comforts himself by purchasing the theater’s promotional wax figure of Yvonne from the lobby. Having it delivered to his private chambers to do with as he pleases, without fear of rejection.

While enroute to meet with his wife, Stephen is mangled in a terrible train wreck. Crushing his hands which must be amputated to save his life. Yvonne is desperate to preserve her husband’s livelihood and begs Dr. Gogol for a miracle. His surgical genius is struck with divine inspiration and Stephen is given a hand transplant. The donor of which being a recently executed knife thrower from the circus. The surgery is a success, but Stephen is repulsed by his transplants that require long and expensive treatments. They don’t take to playing the piano as they once did but now seem to have a talent for knives. The Orlacs are forced to sell all their valuables as the bills pile up, straining their marriage much to Gogol’s delight. With murder hanging in the balance, Stephen descends into madness. Luring Yvonne to Dr. Gogol for answers, like a fly to a carnivorous plant.

I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?

Mad Love was the first of many remakes of Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac). An Austrian silent horror film directed by expressionist veteran, Robert Wiene. This version focused more on the unraveling of Stephen as the protagonist. Rejecting his evil willed appendages and featuring a con man as the villain. Wiene’s film itself was inspired by a 1920 French fantasy/horror novel, Les Mains d’Orlac. Written by Maurice Renard, it is cited as one of the earliest appearances of body horror.

Mad Love is less faithful to Renard’s novel than Frankenstein or Dracula are to their origins in gothic literature. Which comes as no surprise that the script writer, John L. Balderston, had previously written on those film adaptations along with The Mummy and The Bride of Frankenstein. Balderston expanded on an otherwise minor character by combining the novel’s benign doctor with ‘Spectropheles’. A grotesque figure clad in white that haunts Stephen Orlac’s wife throughout Renard’s version. Regarded as the ghost of the train accident in the book and on screen as Dr. Gogol, a ghoul in white surgical scrubs. Both personal devils of Mrs. Orlac that must be faced before all is lost.

Balderstone had composed the film’s dialog with Lorre in mind, at points calling for the actor to deploy his “M look”. Referring to Lorre’s breakthrough role as Hans Beckert, a child murderer in Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller, M. A Weimar Republic-era movie that would type cast the actor for the rest of his career. The tortured Stephen Orlac is played by, Colin Clive. No stranger to horror as the memorable Dr. Henry in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Keye Luke appears as Gogol’s assisting surgeon, Dr. Wong. Best known for his role as Lee Chan in the Charlie Chan films and appearing with Peter Lorre in 1938 film Mr. Moto’s Gamble. Edward Brophy plays Rollo the knife thrower, on his way to the guillotine. Brophy had also played a knife throwing circus performer named Rollo in the 1935 movie Freaks. Possibly setting the cult film within the same cinematic universe as Mad Love.

Other film adaptations include The Hands of Orlac (1960) directed by Edmond Grevilleand Hands of a Stranger (1962) directed by Newt Arnold. The premise of a killer transplant inspired a number of other films such as The Crawling Hand (1963), The Hand (1981), and Les Mains de Roxana (2012). On television it had influenced a segment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and the Doctor Who serial, “The Hand of Fear”. A variant of the theme was used in an unproduced project of Alfred Hitchcock, The Blind Man and parodied in The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror IX”. It has even been suggested that Mad Love directly inspired the visual style of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

 “Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves”

Though upon initial release Mad Love was a commercial failure, it has grown a devout following through the years. Amassing an audience that appreciates Freund and Balderston weaving as many horror tropes within their movie as they could. From set designs to borrowed lines, the film pays tribute to its expressionistic roots and other heavy hitters in the genre.

The film title Mad Love is more obviously in reference to the sadistic obsession Gogol has for the actress and the skin-crawling scenes of his entitled wooing. Perhaps it also regards Yvonne’s devotion to her husband, Stephen. Resorting to desperate measures to care for the wreck-mauled pianist. Including reaching out to a repugnant stage-door johnny and admittedly trading on his unrequited feelings. Unknowingly evoking a madness in their lives that can only come from “love”.