Even as a semi-adventurous and cash-strapped teenager, I never would have considered grave robbing as an enticing financial opportunity. That speaks less to my sense of desperation or questionable ethics, and more to my failure of imagination, unlike the young and plucky raiders at the center of Ruben Galindo Jr.’s 1989 horror film, GRAVE ROBBERS, originally released in Mexico as LADRONES DE TUMBAS.
Hundreds of years in the past in Mexico, a Satanic rapist (Agustin Bernal) tries to carry out a ritual to impregnate a captive woman with the devil’s offspring as part of some evil prophecy. A group of monks interrupt his scheme, chase him into the surrounding woods, and capture him before condemning him to a painful death-by-axe. With his dying words, he vows to return through one of their descendants to carry out his mission to give Satan a son.
Fast forward to the present day in the town of San Ramon; local police chief Captain Lopez (Fernando Almada) and his gunsmith pal, Raul (Tony Bravo), are firing off semi-automatic weapons on a rooftop for fun, or possibly for science. Bubbly, big-haired Olivia (Edna Bolkan) drops by to tell her policeman dad that she and some girlfriends are camping in the woods for the night. Lopez warns her to keep the fires under control but otherwise seems to trust her judgement. Plus, he really wants to get back to shooting guns.
Elsewhere in town, a group of fashionable youths arrive at an old cemetery past nightfall. The crew includes strait-laced Armando (German Bernal), temperamental rebel Manolo (Ernesto Laguardia), clever Rebeca (Erika Buenfil), and the glue that holds them all together, Diana (Maria Rebeca). Along for the ride are scaredy-cats Jorge (Andres Bonfiglio) and Andrea (Andrea Lagerreta), who flee into the night as soon as their friends park the truck.
This is no spur-of-the-moment joyride, though; they targeted this cemetery knowing the local custom was to send the dearly departed to the afterlife with a coffin filled with gold and other assorted valuables. The expedition crew plans to dig up a grave or two, rob the remains of precious jewelry and keepsakes, and be back in bed faster than you can say, “I love to see Nazis melt as much as anyone, but the Indiana Jones character had some problematic elements.”
After their first excavation reveals dirt and bones instead of diamonds and pearls, Rebeca gets all of the blame for her faulty hunch, so she crawls into the grave to investigate. In the blink of an eye, she falls through the bottom of the grave into a secret cavern from a great height. Since nobody knows how to safely down-climb, the rest of the gang falls down into the cavern too. Miraculously, nobody gets hurt, and all of their tools and lanterns are in working order. In short time, they discover a bounty of riches inside the cavern among the corpses and coffins but in the excitement, they disturb a conspicuous crypt and remove an axe from a corpse to snatch a shiny pendant. This isolated action frees a centuries-old maniac from his dirt-nap; this not only threatens the grave robbers, but also nearby campers, the entire police force of San Ramon, and two aloof ranchers riding very stubborn horses. What follows is a rainy, spooky, and bloody night of total havoc that ensnares the entire town.
GRAVE ROBBERS succeeds because of its zany story that unfolds at an energetic pace. There are other elements to buoy it, from the atmosphere and the action-dad antics of lead Fernando Almada, to the ongoing tension between the reckless youth and local law enforcement, along with the strong visual effects. The killer’s character design is menacing and leaves just enough to the imagination until a ghoulish reveal in the climax, and other gruesome flourishes – e.g., desiccated cavern corpses covered in webs, chest bursting convulsions, and all manner of blood-gushing axe wounds – contribute to an overall production design that clicks on multiple levels to deliver a sense of pure chaos falling upon a small town ill-equipped to stop it. Recommended.