- Mapping Cult Cinema in Latin American Film Cultures
In 2011 the Cuban-Spanish coproduction Juan of the Dead (Juan de los muertos; Alejandro Brugués, 2011) was received by Carlos Eduardo Maristany of Cuba Art News as a “cult film hit.”1 The use of the term cult to describe Juan of the Dead was genre based, referencing its use of the zombie film rather than any of the other myriad elements that Barry K. Grant and others have suggested define cult cinema (e.g., a “devoted audience” built up over time; some form of “transgression” at the level of subject matter, attitude, or style; an “alternative mode of distribution and exhibition”).2 Most tellingly, Juan of the Dead’s position within a tradition of cult cinema was determined solely in relation to Anglo zombie films (George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead and, more specifically, Edgar Wright’s 2004 British “zom com” Shaun of the Dead) and by the political and social commentary that goes with these films rather than in relation to any Cuban, or indeed Latin American, antecedents.3 If Maristany had wished to cite continental antecedents, he could have chosen from a number of contemporary or past Latin American zombie films, including the Argentinean film Zombie Plague (Plaga zombie; Pablo Parés and Hernán Sáez, 1997), the Mexican film Santo vs. the Zombies (Santo contra los zombies; Benito Alazraki, 1961), and the larger tradition of Mexican and Argentine horror of which these films are a part. If he had wished to position Juan of the Dead—or other recent Latin American films that have also been given this “cult” label, such as The Silent House (La casa muda; Gustavo Hernández, Uruguay, 2010) and Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, Mexico, 1993)—within a continental history of cult film, things would have been a little bit more difficult. This history has, for reasons this essay explores, yet to be written. But he could still have gestured toward a growing body of work in this emerging and other adjacent research areas. [End Page 129]
In this essay I map recent critical work on Latin American cult cinema, its adjacent research areas, and other non–Latin American scholarship, which bring useful perspectives and address the problems that cult, as a term of US and European film scholarship, presents to the very different contexts of Latin America’s national filmmaking endeavors. I look at the ways cult cinema clashes with what were the earlier dominant vectors of Latin American film studies—the (prescriptive) paradigms of a realist and engaged “[third] world cinema”—but also point toward how cult cinema fits in with new ways of conceiving the region’s cinema.
Although a history of cult cinema in Latin America has yet to be written, the term cult is increasingly used in recent English- and Spanish-language scholarship on the region’s cinema as a descriptive for a broader spectrum of paracinematic practices (e.g., trash, exploitation, horror). Several essays in the anthology Latsploitation, Exploitation Cinemas, and Latin America, edited by myself and Victoria Ruétalo, use the term cult.4 Kirsten Strayer identifies Mexican filmmaker Juan López Moctezuma’s The Mansion of Madness (1973) as a “cult object.”5 Rosana Díaz-Zambrana, in the introduction to the very useful and timely Horrorfílmico: Aproximaciones al cine de terror en Latinoamérica y el Caribe, calls The Vampire (El vampiro; Fernando Méndez, Mexico, 1957) “el primer largometraje de culto” (“the first cult feature”).6 The essays in Latsploitation in particular are conscious of the necessary reworking of the paradigms of exploitation as established by US scholars Eric Schaefer, Jeffrey Sconce, and others for the varied economic, cultural, social, political, and film industry specificities of filmmaking across the region.7 With this (re)definition of cult cinema for Latin America, a more complex reworking becomes necessary, because, as Mark Jancovich and his coeditors have pointed out in Defining Cult Cinema, “‘the cult movie’ is an essentially eclectic category” whose most salient element is not a film’s institutional position (hence the number of Hollywood films that have subsequently become cult texts) or...