I Am Become Undead: ‘Cronos’ by Guillermo del Toro

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.

Monsters Walk Among Us

Indeed, a sense of the grotesque pervades the work of del Toro, similar to the biology-gone-bad motifs underscored in the horror films of Cronenberg, which avoid simplistic splatter horror and weepy macabre. Cronenberg unveils inversions, bodies that lack discreetness, wholeness, or harmony, like the underworld creature with eyes submerged in claw-like hands that del Toro features in Pan’s Labyrinth. Grotesque mutations abound in both directors’ work: in Naked Lunch, typewriter cockroaches and giant centipedes cause distinct anxiety; similarly, in The Fly, the melded human/fly hybrid severs his human chrysalis, the last vestiges of his former flimsy body, and panders to no politics, only his instinct, finally begging his lover to destroy the unnatural ‘other’ he has become; while Gris is a redemptive avenger whose morphing body turns the color of dirty chalk.

del Toro suggests a religious sense pervades his monsters, as well. A link might exist between the streamlined primitivism of insect hordes (a “disquieting mutability”, according to Atkinson) and the hollow workers of church and state:

…insects are as close as we come in the real world – insects and deep-sea creatures — to having monsters walk amongst us. I’m fascinated by biology; I always have been since I was a kid; I’m fascinated with anatomy …how these creatures have no real heart, they just have hollow chambers, they pump white blood, they have 6 or more eyes, they have 6 legs, they have a hard shell and have no skeleton. It’s wonderful. It’s an absolutely incredible design, and in that they are perfect and that makes them also incredibly scary. (“Outside The Frame: Guillermo del Toro Interview Part 1.” ThePhoenix.com, 2007)

In our current geo-political climate, including gang-land and government agency tortures, devastating drug wars and aberrant foreign policies, the harvesting of body parts from exploited poor and downtrodden people, and harrowing tales of mutations due to disasters (like Chernobyl, Bhopal, the gulf oil spill, etc.) and chemicals reeking throughout our biosphere, not to mention DNA experiments, Cronos is both a poetic commentary and genuinely frightening lens.

The Cronos device evokes such mindless insect behavior, neo-religious entrapment, and body horror.

In a key scene, Gris discovers the intensity of his blood lust in the bathroom of a New Year’s Eve party, where he lies prone on the ground and proceeds to inch his tongue towards a small pool of blood left over from a partygoer’s nosebleed. I imagine bathrooms as liminal spaces, Bakhtinian zones, often coated in indiscreet latrinalia (graffiti), where expressions of lower bodily stratum – filthy and gurgling orifices — remain unrestrained behind temporarily closed doors. The “discharge” of blood in this scene predicates both Gris’ sickness and revitalization. Potent and intoxicating, life-giving and nourishing, and ultimately deadly, the blood may be a trope signifying the rampant AIDS crisis, when cravings for life-sustaining sex were undercut by the grim realities of blood, disease, and death.

The scene quickly cuts to confetti showering the crowd, almost as if the taste of blood induced an orgasm. The same party scene features a man dressed as a clock (the alchemist was a watchmaker, as well), revealing issues of temporality, the supposedly rigid constructs of time, and a haunting awareness of life’s limits. Yet, vampires — ‘creatures of the night’ — blur such boundaries. Gris is undead and vigorous, monstrous and humane, inhuman (he morphs into marble gray skin features) and super-human (strong, eternal…). Vampires are grotesque, feeding on the blood of people, revealing a certain upside-down sexuality, as if erogenous zones had been re-located to the neck. Teeth become phallic chisels, mouths a vagina with teeth. In Cronos, specifically, the trope of the vampiric symbolizes the autocratic state bleeding wealth and resources, while the disease of commodity fetishism (desire for the beetle’s elixir) overpowers humanity.

Inversions inhabit the film. Gris rises after death by car wreck-cum-assassination (just as the spirit of rebel leaders pervades the public after martyrdom, including Christ, Che Guevara, etc); from then on he sleeps not in a coffin but in the toy trunk of his granddaughter, surrounded by stuffed animals, among items of pleasure, just as he too is stuffed, engorged on the elixir of the beetle, and has become, like the imaginary animals, re-animated and alive. The little girl hides his beetle in the cottony interior of one of her stuffed bears, symbolizing, it appears, how Gris, too, has been reworked from the inside: injected, mutated, and reborn by a man-made device. Throughout the film, Angel is also obsessed with a nose job, even suffers a broken nose twice, while Gris discovers that he is shedding skin and forming an unnatural re-conditioning of his body, like a tough hide. Lastly, as Gris makes his way through his post-death second life, he wears his suit backwards, an unnatural variant that perhaps signifies his inversion, since he appears backwards and twisted.

With Cronos, del Toro colonizes and remixes postcolonial film genres, explores anxieties about the nature of the human body while simultaneously exploring the body politic of capitalism, and weaves together issues like AIDS and fetish commodities. In our current geo-political climate, including gang-land and government agency tortures, devastating drug wars and aberrant foreign policies, the harvesting of body parts from exploited poor and downtrodden people, and harrowing tales of mutations due to disasters (like Chernobyl, Bhopal, the gulf oil spill, etc.) and chemicals reeking throughout our biosphere, not to mention DNA experiments, Cronos is both a poetic commentary and genuinely frightening lens. Criterion Collection has brought this compelling film forth in a package offering: new commentary from the director; a booklet featuring original notes from the film and engaging film insight by writer Maitland McDonagh; an unreleased and newly completed ’80s short horror film from the director; as well as other noteworthy features.