I Am Become Undead: 'Cronos' by Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro evokes a sense of literary and filmic magic surrealism, one of the core traits of Latin American creative DNA, popularized by writers such Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who probe the painful politics that often prevail in the Latin world.

Cronos, now restored in warm high definition and re-released by Criterion Collection this month, was the first feature length film by Guillermo del Toro, who worked in the film industry as a make-up artist for films such as Cabeza de Vaca (Nicolas Echevarria, 1992) and as a director for Mexican television series in the late-'80s. It features a notable cast that includes actors plucked from both sides of the border, including Ron Perlman, later hired for the role as main protagonist of del Toro’s successful Hellboy films. In short, the film involves an antiques dealer, Jesus Gris, who discovers a scarab/beetle -- a mechanical and biological hybrid -- that is centuries old.

The device exudes nectar that produces infinite life, transforming users/victims into blood-lusting creatures. Mysterious, ill-fated businessman Dieter de la Guardia seeks it. He secludes himself away in a dormant factory loft room cluttered with medical devices and humidifiers -- along with bottles of his own removed tumors -- and an ancient manuscript revealing the essential knowledge of the device, which was created by a centuries-old alchemist and re-discovered in 1937 after a collapsed wall punctured the ghoulish man's chest.

With a nod to the directorial style and aesthetics of longtime film world indie icons David Cronenberg (The Fly, Existenz, Naked Lunch) and George Romero (the zombie trilogy beginning with Night of the Dead), viewers may frame the film as a metaphor for Mexican society coming to grips with the era of AIDS and the tumult and pressures equated with neo-liberal capitalism, a dynamic John Kramiauskas has defined as “secular developmental zeal”. Perhaps such heady themes enticed viewers at Cannes, where the film won the Critics Choice award in 1993. Furthermore, the film still garners almost 90 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes, the aggregate site of critical movieland commentary.

Such a contemporary fantasy-cum-horror film appeals to folklorists like me because it borrows heavily from folk tales and history, blending them in syncretic fusion. In doing so, Del Toro evokes a sense of literary and filmic magic surrealism, one of the core traits of Latin American creative DNA, popularized by writers such Gabriel Garcia Marquez (“The Old Man with Wings” and One Hundred Years of Solitude), who probe the painful politics that often prevail in the Latin world. Critics like Michael Atkinson suggest Cronos “broke with el cheapo genre heritage” and resonates with social issues well beyond the film, including aging, AIDS, class warfare, commodity fetishism, and other issues (“Moral Heroes in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Film Comment, 2007).

In the early-to-mid-'90s, Mexico was in the midst of social, cultural, and economic crisis, especially in regards to the aftermath of President Salinas’s policies throughout the previous decade, described as “savage capitalism” by the novelist Carlos Fuentes. In addition, the rebellious Zapatistas (EZLN) staged a successful media campaign and tactical insurrection against the central government in southern Mexico. Cronos was made during this era, inhabiting a genre that Kraniauskas calls a “postcolonial tradition of horror” and a “Mexican tradition of revenats”, in which the vampire may be understood as an examination of the “social rule of capital” (“Cronos and the Political Economy of Vampirism: Notes on a Historical Constellation”, Cannibalism and the Colonial World, 1998). Just as the old land-based autocrats, economic elite, and political cronies of Mexico tried to bleed Chiapas dry, he suggests, the Cronos device serves as a brutal metaphor for vampiric traits. In this sense, lifeless technocrats coddled by an intransigent hegemony that enact policies with little regard for human consequence are real monsters.

The alchemist conceived the curious device in the New World, forging a talismatic miniature Fountain of Youth from ‘heathen’ Aztec gold (we presume): it is also both totemic and metaphoric, relating to Egyptian scarabs, which symbolized the god Khepera/Khepri. As lore suggests, this godhead propels the sun, even into the depths of the underworld. It offers eternal life, in a Faustian ploy of sorts. The user, or victim, must succumb to the juice/nectar/intoxicant that it injects into a user’s body via outstretched arthropod pincers.

Protagonist Jesus Gris (named after the religious icon raised from the dead?), discovers the device’s potential. A bit boyish (he hop-scotches in his store to entertain his granddaughter, who becomes his enabler and savior in many ways), he squirms when roaches escape from the statuette (long sought by de la Guardia) bearing the beetle, whereas the granddaughter does not hesitate to crush them, perhaps evoking a gender reversal and foreshadowing her own adolescent resolve and female power. The overweening industrialist’s nephew, Angel, ruthlessly kills Gris while trying to mollify his uncle’s compulsive desire to avoid death and decay -- the morbid reality of his own demise. However, Gris is transmogrified, resurrected, and rejuvenated due to the life force and vitality catalyzed by the beetle’s grip. The stiff, biomorphic amalgam offers permanent alterity (otherness) to him: Gris is undead.

The director fluidly melds old-fashioned noir and horror film conventions, both antique and timely. For example, the city becomes a zone or tableaux filled with typical genre motifs -- phone calls in midnight rain, creaky stairs, steam-filled subterranean depths, and wind-blown curtains. He also offers a curious examination of pseudo-science, bullying business practices, and greed that outdates the Old Testament. The ancient manuscripts and scarab symbolize how savage and all-consuming fetishes can be in late-stage capitalism, when folkloric and modern worlds merge in an uneasy dance.

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