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July 8, 2010

Disaster: Mexican Style

by David Hayes

Rene Cardona, Jr. The name alone inspires apathy throughout the film community. And that is truly a shame. Cardona, following in the footsteps of his director father, Rene Cardona, Sr. of course, has crafted a directing resume that is three decades old and is populated with over 90 feature films. Yet, not a soul can put a face to the near legendary Mexican exploitation master. Maybe it is due solely to marketing? If Tim Burton had cast Johnny Depp as Rene Cardona, Jr., and not Ed Wood, maybe midnight screenings of schlock classics like Cyclone and Tintorera would grace the screens of theaters everywhere. As far as filmmaking skill goes, both Wood and Cardona are in the same league. Stock footage, reused footage and self-referential dialogue (in Cyclone, the characters actually refer to Cardona Sr.’s Survive!) are all hallmarks of exploitation film greatness yet Cardona still hasn’t received the recognition he is due.

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It can’t be the subject matter. Rene Cardona Jr. has a penchant for disaster movies. The more disastrous the better and if Hollywood happened to make a large budget version of the story previously, then that’s just fine. Unfortunately, Cardona is a big-scale tragedy filmmaker on a single-location romantic comedy starring Carrot-Top budget. This never stopped the Latin King of Disaster (God, I hope that name sticks) in his never-ending quest for celluloid greatness, though. His films, although many have never been released in North America, run the gamut of terror and tragedy. Guyana: Crime of the Century detailed the nefarious dealings of the Reverend Jim Jones and the mass suicide (via Kool-Aid… HEY KIDS) of the cult members. This feel-good tale of the year came under the discerning eye of Cardona. Guyana, even though filmed in the usual low-budget Cardona style, was actually picked up by Universal for release in the United States. One would think that Cardona’s star was on the rise until, of course, Universal re-cut the film and added a narrator, effectively killing of Cardona’s version of the piece. Cardona followed up Guyana with a Jaws-like disaster film called Tintorera (Tiger Shark). It fails as a film on almost any cinematic level, but the tried and true method for Cardona’s filmmaking is there. Take one part hugely successful storyline (in this case, Jaws), one part semi-recognizable American actor (Tintorera starred Priscilla Barnes of Three’s Company fame), add stock footage, mix and shake. Your final recipe should serve between 10 and 20 guests. This formula worked for Cardona and, unlike many exploitation filmmakers of the same time period, he actually made his living from the movies.

Cardona began his entertainment career at his father’s side, acting in his first film Cartas marcads as a Newsboy in 1949. Jr. appeared in many of his father’s films and eventually began directing in 1964 with El Raspado. An accomplished writer as well, Cardona Jr. penned the screenplay for, arguably, his father’s most famous film, Night of the Bloody Apes in 1968. Cardona also wrote many of his own films including Cyclone, Tintorera and Evil Birds (a Hitchcock-ian ‘suspense’ thriller). It stands to reason that, at the very least fans of genre films and exploitation masterpieces would be familiar with Rene Cardona Jr. This simply isn’t the case, but something is finally being done about it.

Within the past few years, Cardona's epic, Cyclone, has had a nice DVD release. A Rene Cardona, Jr. epic of the highest magnitude, this film has everything that made Cardona what he is today. A disaster, barely recognizable American actors (including Arthur Kennedy as a kindly priest and Lionel Strander, the gruff butler of Hart to Hart fame), gore and a penchant for long spans of time where nothing happens makes Cyclone the perfect Cardona Starter Film for budding exploitation film enthusiasts. As you know, or will find out momentarily, a freak ocean cyclone is about to hit a small Caribbean island. This disastrous storm (which ends a half hour into the film… oddly enough) takes down multiple boats, a plane and people on shore. The focus of our story, though, is on a tour boat. Much like a b-movie version of Gilligan’s Island, each of the passengers is a gross stereotype. You have the rich woman (international sexpot Caroll Baker), complete with dog, a pregnant woman and husband, a handsome boat captain (and young First Mate with which he exchanges serious homo-erotic glances at inopportune moments) and the rest. During the “largest storm in recorded history” the boat survives and, along the way, picks up the stranded passengers of a downed airplane and fishing boat. Prophetically, one of the characters sums up the plight of the storm survivors with one finely crafted line of dialogue. He states, “Our only hope is that they find us before its too late.” Well said, Bible-thumping crusty fisherman… well said. Meanwhile, back on shore, we find out it isn’t logical to keep looking for survivors. It seems the crack police force on Generic Island is pretty well suited to just not doing anything. All the bad news to the families of the dead are delivered under crystal blue skies. On the mainland, the threat has certainly passed.

On the boat, things have gone from bad to worse. Days afloat have reduced the water supply (from the melted ice in a cooler) to nothing. Food is scarce. This is a Cardona film, so thoughts naturally turn to cannibalism. You can see where this is going. Finally, thanks to the fine folks at Synapse Films, Rene Cardona Jr. is finally getting the treatment he deserves. Cyclone, although not the greatest film in the world, is a very important part of both Mexican and worldwide exploitation film history. Cardona Jr. is oftentimes overshadowed by the image of his father, Cardona Sr., and the Lucha (Mexican wrestling) films that Sr. was notorious for. It is high time that Rene Cardona Jr., The Latin King of Exploitation, finally get the recognition he deserves. Maybe deserves isn’t the right word. Cardona worked his entire life to entertain the audiences that came to see his, sometimes awful, films. Undaunted, Cardona pressed on directing his last film in 2000. Cardona died on February 5, 2003 in Mexico City from cancer. Cardona, Jr is survived by a son, Rene Cardona III also a film director, who is carrying on the fine family tradition of Exploitive Filmmaking.

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