Wednesday, February 16, 2011

La tomba (2004)

Some questions, perhaps, are better not asked and left unanswered. After a week's viewing of his cinema, I asked myself why--for well over a decade, now--I continue to watch the films of Bruno Mattei. Are they fun, b-movie trash? Maybe, but I find this answer unpersuasive. Lurking on message boards and searching for answers for the few of us who genuinely consider ourselves fans of Mattei's work, I can find no answers. Mattei fans make no apologies and mount no defenses. It's as if there is no redemption to be had. Often, I am like a vegetative hospital patient in front of the screen when Mattei's images flicker past and am totally defenseless. Is Bruno Mattei cinema anti-cinema? I like that term, and it looks cool as I write it; but I prefer to end this query now, before its answers crawl up from the abyss.La tomba (2004) is one of Mattei's last films. In the new millennium, before his death in 2007, Mattei would helm more films than in the decade before. Most, if not all, were shot-on-video and most, to put it in an understated manner, were highly derivative of other cinema. Mexico. The height of the Mayan civilization. One of the Mayan deities, a goddess, is about to be invoked and brought forth into this world. A high priest resides over a sacrificial ritual with his masked consort at his side. Two jewels are placed in the eyes of the statue of the goddess, and now, only sacrifices are needed. The final sacrifice is to be a priestess, someone specially chosen. A clan of Mayan warriors disrupt the ritual and begin battle. If the Mayan goddess is brought forth from the dark abyss, then humanity is doomed. The masked consort flees with the high priest. In a tomb located in the catacombs of the temple, the high priest sacrifices himself. Patiently, his corpse will stay in the tomb. One day, he will rise again and complete the ritual. Mexico. Modern day. A group of archaeology students led by their professor (Robert Madison) arrive via bus to begin a survey and study of some ancient ruins. If you've read the paragraph above, then take a guess where they're going and what they are about to do. I'll wait.

Video has either been a blessing or a curse for modern cinema. Modern viewers have adapted to life beyond celluloid quite well; and most do not see it as a deterrent to an enjoyable cinema experience. Modern technology has advanced quite far; and often, films shot on the video format rarely call attention to themselves. La tomba is one of those rarities. Have you ever seen a really funky-ass-looking television show and wondered why it looked so funky? Lighting for film and lighting for video are two wholly different arts. La tomba appears lit for film (or lit for coverage) and shot on video. Colors appear unnaturally bright and vibrant, and the sets appear even more theatrical and artificial. With every frame of La tomba, while watching, it is difficult to forget that a film is playing out. La tomba really calls attention to itself with its visual style. Therefore, one with little ease can be critical of the sets, the costumes, and the makeup. You can almost see where the latex adheres to the skin on the practical makeup effects. When one of the characters pushes the lid off of the crypt which houses the corpse of the high priest, immediately one does not think of heavy granite. The lid weighs practically nothing, and that actor straining is clearly acting. How about them apples?
Mattei loves casting attractive women in the roles of his films. Their attractive quality seems, at times, the sole reason why he cast them. Two actresses standout: Anna Marcello and Kasia Zurakowska. Marcello gives the best performance in La tomba as the bruja. Upon arrival in Mexico, the archaeological team needs a guide. A disgusting, lecherous man named Professor Santos is the initial guide. He is not able to fulfill his duties (his final scenes in La tomba are sublime). The archaeological team, via the concierge at their hotel, is led to a "healer," or bruja, who could substitute. Enter Marcello. Simultaneously sensuous and sinister, Marcello always scowls. Her character radiates true energy. Zurakowska plays Viola, one of the archaeological students and also was the priestess from the initial sequence whose death is staved off by the Mayan warriors. Not a coincidence. In an endearing sequence, Viola is hard at study in the temple with her portable CD player tucked into her waistband. She’s dancing to her own rhythm and occasionally taking notes from one the murals in the temple. Viola hears a haunting and odd chanting. She pulls her earphones and shakes her CD player. Frightened, she throws the player to the ground. Gasp! There is no music disc inside. Incidental note. Most, even those reading this, will never see La tomba. However, if you want to see how beautiful Marcello and Zurakowska are, then do an image search via your favorite search engine for one of their model pictorials. Best not done at work, kiddies.

I know little of acting and little of character interaction and little of actor motivation. This, to me, is the oddest thing in La tomba: whenever a character starts screaming or flipping out, usually Viola, another character will run over to him/her and immediately grab and shake them. In fact, the characters will go out of their way to touch each other in almost every conversation. The concept of personal space is truly dead in La tomba.

One of the indisputable and shining highlights of La tomba (of really all of Mattei’s cinema) is the editing. Although it does not appear that Mattei edited La tomba, Mattei has as many credits as a film editor as he does a film director. Of all the things that could be said about his work, directorial self-indulgence is not one of them. Mattei rarely fell in love with his footage. As an editor, he knew when to cut a sequence before it outstayed its welcome. La tomba zips along and seems well shorter than its ninety-minute-or-so running time.

There is so much more that can be said about La tomba: the inclusion of clips from other films (Effectively inserted by the way, in a dramatic sense. The fact that they are celluloid inserts in a video film give them away, however.); the presence of actor Robert Madison (who appeared in some other notable Italian films) who is rugged and handsome and looks like a professional wrestler; and the sublime script and dialogue. Too much has been said already, and I think that I’ve seen La tomba too many times. I will see it many more times: the true mystery, undoubtedly.


Alex B. said...

I haven't seen this yet, but I know where to find it. Love that fake video look, it creates an odd viewing experience.
Have you seen Snuff Trap aka Snuff Killer? That was my first Mattei DV experience, it also has inserts from other films intercut with video footage, and the same happens in Land of Death!

Hans A. said...

Snuff Trap! Yes. I have many of Mattei's SOV films. I've watched many in this last week. I'm often tempted to review a slew of them at once.

Thanks for commenting, Alex.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Fulci also did the splicing scenes from other horror films into his own in A Cat in the Brain, not my favorite Fulci flick.

Those pics you posted make the film look like a cheap rip off of From Dusk Till Dawn. Then again, Mattei was all about ripping off american films...Robo War (1988) was a huge Predator rip off.

Bruno Mattei, I've always kind of despised him as a director, he made his films so fast, so cheaply, it feels like he never really loved making horror films, he simply made the for the money he could make out of them, but I never really detected any true love for the genre.

Zombie 3 for example, what a mess.

But you know what, I enjoy cheesy movies, so I dont mind seeing them. It's just that they are not what I would call 'good' horror films. I've never seen Hell of the LIving Dead, would you recommend that one?

Alex B. said...

I'd like to hear your thoughts on Zombie: La Creazione. That one looks interesting and action-packed.
I remember being very excited when I got my Snuff Trap disc. I think it only came out on DVD in Italy and Russia. Just to know that Bruno was back in action was amazing. And he managed to make a whole load of DV films in a few short years before his passing. Don't you just love prolific genre people like that!

Hans A. said...

@Francisco--You have some very passionate thoughts towards Mattei. I'm going to write more about his work in the future, so I suppose more of my own thoughts will come through. Although, you can tell from this review that I'm a big fan. Most people do not like Hell of the Living Dead, but if you like cheesy horror films, then you might like it.

Thank you very much for the thoughtful comment, Francisco.

@Alex--click the Bruno Mattei tag at the end of this review. I reviewed Mattei's last two zombie films. They are two of my earliest reviews and are absolutely terrible. I probably should review them again in a later post.

A lot of my late Mattei discs are from either Russia or Italy (although I think my zombie discs are Czech). His output was something else.

Paul Cooke aka Buckaroobanzai said...

Good write up, and great to see the Bruno love is still alive and well after the 'B' movie maestros passing. His movies are big silly fun, just what you want from a low budget 'B' flick, and for me Bruno was an entertainer.
The Tomb is pure colourful sloppy joe juiciness that slides right on down without any bad after taste. Enjoyable silliness. Lots of gore & wobbly scenery. Good fun.
It really was a blast that Bruno made another late comeback & recycled his own movies, having already Xeroxed them from elsewhere, giving us about a half dozen or so late entry Eighties throwback movies. Non taking themselves seriously, and all packed with Action, gore & Bruno grade entertainment. Gotta love his infectious enthusiasm. Thanks Bruno.

Hans A. said...

@Paul--thanks for your comment! I'm so glad that a Mattei film is inspiring conversation. I also appreciate the kind words, and hope all is well.

A.D. said...

"I'm often tempted to review a slew of them at once."

DO IT! I haven't seen a whole lot of Mattei's films, but the ones I have seen, I've loved. SS GIRLS is definitely in my top 3 of Nazisploitation films along with ILSA and BEAST IN HEAT, and HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD is so much fun. I tried to watch THE OTHER HELL a couple of months ago but got pretty bored with it and sent it back to Netflix.

Hans A. said...

@Aaron--if I did a bunch of Mattei reviews in a row, they would probably be his stuff post-2000. That the period of his work which interests me at the moment.

Thanks for reading, bro!

Stephen said...


Because I haven't seen the majority of the films that you write about here I've made the mistake in the past of not reading your posts fully.

This is a funny and interesting review and your writing is always very good.

You say "her character radiates true energy" and it's energy that seems to be the main quality of films called 'b-movies' or 'trashy'. There's something exciting about films like these - and I have seen too few of them - that may have dodgy acting or seem less 'polished' but are full of life.

I will try and track this down.

Hans A. said...

Thanks, Stephen. I just have eclectic cinema tastes and enjoy writing. Great stuff that you're doing on your own site. Looking forward to more.