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

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