El Santo is a pillar of Mexican genre cinema.
When I visited Mexico in January of 2020, I remember walking through the mercado with my Abuelo and Ama. As we walked through the multiple stands with the commotion of the daily hustle surrounding us, there was a local vendor who managed to cut through the noise and catch my eye. The seller had a wall filled with luchador masks, all of them with legendary names attached to their fabric. My Ama picked out a mask from El Santo saying how she loved watching his films growing up.
Naturally, once I was back at my Tia’s house I checked online and found multiple films of El Santo, among many other films from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, ready at my fingertips. Discovering the films of El Santo opened a newfound appreciation for Mexican genre cinema filled. These films were campy, had an eerie atmosphere, and were made with a genuine love for the genre.
To simply call El Santo el Enmascarado de Plata (the Silver-Masked Man) a cultural icon is an understatement. His two-decade film career inspired the biggest horror subgenre to come out of Mexico during the second half of the 20th century. His filmography spans between genres and decades making it impossible to list over the fifty films El Santo starred in. Instead, here are three films that I believe capture El Santo’s legacy.
Santo Vs. The Zombies
Six years before George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, zombies cinematically invaded the Mexican horror genre through Benito Alazraki’s film, Santo Vs. The Zombies. While this film is El Santo’s third credit on IMDB, this is his feature debut as the previous two films are Cuban crime films where El Santo appears solely through a cameo. Finally entering Mexican homes through the horror genre, El Santo displays his amusing performance through tropes of the luchador subgenre.
Just like many other films, Santo Vs. The Zombies begins with a lucha libre match. There Santo parades his skill and performative nature through wrestling. El Santo, who is most famously known for his grapples, fights his human opponents with style and breeze. Throughout the film, we get a few more instances of El Santo wrestling in a ring while the zombies follow the orders of the mad scientist Genaro (Carlos Agostí) to capture Gloria Sandoval (Lorena Velázquez), an actress who appears in many El Santo films.
Given that Santo Vs. The Zombies was filmed in 1962, the zombies follow suit of Victor Halperin’s White Zombie. Instead of undead cannibals, the race of zombies is more human-like with brainwashed minds. Yet they are just as deadly as Romero’s zombies. El Santo’s first encounter with them is at an occupied orphanage set on fire by the zombies. El Santo bravely fights against the personified version of evil. He’s filmed as the hero to the young generation of children of Mexico, both in the orphanage in the film and the viewers at home. The film, while light on the horror sequences, is an exemplary entry and introduction to El Santo’s legacy.
The Diabolical Axe
After several years of El Santo’s horror and crime-fighting run, director José Díaz Morales took hold of the Mexican luchador and began to mix fantasy, a sub-genre already heavily correlated with The Golden Age of Mexican cinema, into the luchador horror genre. The first to come out of the four film lineup of El Santo films is The Diabolical Axe. The film is ambitious as it is entertaining and novel. The storyline spans over four centuries as El Santo time travels back to the 17th century during the Mexican Inquisition to face a mysterious presence that haunts him in the present.
While the film is filled with atmospheric sets and costumes, which the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema is famous for, what stood out to me the most is the dramatic change in El Santo’s fighting style. The heavily stylized and energetic grapples and moves evolved into more powerful hits. When going toe to toe with the demonic ax-wielding entity, El Santo’s punches and throws become stronger and more feral.
During these fights, the trope of good always triumphing over evil is displayed through El Santo just like in the majority of his films. Another layer is added when Morales chose to have the evil date back to a time when Mexico was heavily oppressed. The film ends with what El Santo represents. He is told by Lorena Velázquez’s character Isabel de Arango that he will continue wrestling against evil as he is the embodiment of justice. This is exactly what he has become: a Mexican symbol of good overcoming evil.
Santo Vs. The She-Wolves
Out of the countless Santo films I’ve seen to date, Santo Vs. The She-Wolves remains my favorite. By the film’s release in 1976, Mexican horror was slowly leaving the atmospheric yet tame films from the 60s. Its new direction was headed for more experimental and exploitation types of horror films. With titles like Arturo Ripstein’s Aunt Alejandra and Juan López Moctezuma’s Alucarda, the luchador horror genre was slowly coming to an end.
Santo Vs. The She-Wolves is both a homage to the beginning entries of the sub-genre as well as a final goodbye as this is El Santo’s final luchador horror film. In films like Santo Vs. The Zombies, directors took advantage of the monochrome presentation. They honed in and added emphasis to the horror with the use of shadows and negative space in the frame. Although now in color, Santo Vs. The She-Wolves follows the familiar setup by focusing on the dark emptiness surrounding the characters.
The horror lies within the anticipation of never knowing when or where the She-Wolves will attack as El Santo attempts to ruin their plans of human annihilation. With later entries, more gore and bloodshed were depicted on screens and the horror was turned up a notch. Santo Vs. The She-Wolves, while still atmospheric, feels almost exploitive in its presentation with its occasional aggressive and in-your-face camerawork, compared to the standstill shots from earlier films. A certain level of grime reeks from the screen due to the rotted costumes of the She-Wolves. The film is reminiscent of the American Grindhouse films released in the era. Match this with some successful jump scares and we have arguably the best horror film with El Santo.
The final frame of Santo Vs. The She-Wolves is the perfect send-off of the horror luchador genre. El Santo stands on top of a hilltop overlooking the defeated enemy with the setting sun casting his body into a shadow silhouette. The orange glow and blackened surroundings depict the end of an era that dominated Mexican horror for decades.
The Legacy of El Santo
By El Santo’s final film in 1982, The Fury of the Karate Experts, one of his household traits was to never remove his mask in public. Just like modern superheroes, having El Santo keep his hidden identity completely separate from his public persona transcended him from a movie star luchador to a superhero. His name and persona now carry the status of other legends. With multiple ways of hiding his identity over the span of his career, two years later El Santo did the unthinkable. He rapidly showed his aging face on live television during an interview. Just a week after this important moment, the news of his identity, Rudolfo Guzmán Huerta, was soon overshadowed by his death.
During the funeral, an estimated 10,000 people were in attendance making it one of the biggest ceremonies in Mexican history.
The luchador genre may be at an all-time low especially compared to its heyday. Even then, El Santo’s presence can be found in modern cinema. He still has cameos in films such as Pixar’s Coco. The Blu-ray box set release of eight English dubbed El Santo films by VCI Entertainment is another way to keep the legend alive. Even in death, El Santo el Enmascarado de Plata continues to be the Mexican symbol of good triumphing evil. His legacy carries on.