I have spent many hours analyzing the perfect formula for a documentary-style horror film. Number one: film it with the subtlety of a non-fiction documentary; this makes everything more believable. Number two: cast remarkable, unrecognizable actors – witnesses, experts, family member characters – who sell their role with the artistry of a true bilker. Number three: provide stunning B role. I can name about 25 films in this genre who have fallen short miserably in any number of these arenas, and sometimes all three. However, in their defense, it’s difficult to make the cut when you’re up against a masterpiece like Savageland (2016).
Directed by Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, and David Whelan, Savageland opens as your standard documentary, providing a summary of the topics to be discussed throughout the film. The central story is presented. On June 2, 2011, the inhabitants of Sangre de Cristo, a small town on the Arizona-Mexican border, are all slain in a matter of hours. 57 men, women, and children all perish, leaving streets filled with blood and carnage, only 7 identifiable bodies, and one lone survivor – Francisco Salazar. Salazar is picked up by a passing truck driver covered in blood and carrying only his camera. He is promptly arrested as the perpetrator, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death by lethal injection. As would occur in any white-bred border state, the surrounding towns are on fire demanding justice, rioting outside of the courthouse, and blaming illegal immigrants for all of their woes, their sentiments aggressively narrated by one very Alex Jones-esque talk show host name Gus Greer (Edward Green). But the trial isn’t the end of the story.
During Salazar’s appeal process – an automatic right granted to all convicts sentenced to death in the state of Arizona – Lawrence Ross, an investigative journalist covering the case, receives a roll of film in the mail from the truck driver, which he states was dropped in his cab by Salazar months before. Ross develops the photographs and finds 36 exposures taken by Salazar which tell a completely different story of what happened the night of the slaughter.
The body of the film focuses on these photos, alongside an interview of Salazar performed by psychotherapist Renee Davies – the only time that Salazar has ever spoken following the events. Retired Border Patrol Officer, Carlos Olivares, walks the documentary crew through the ghost town of Sangre de Cristo, describing the trail that Salazar took as he moved through town, starting at his house on the outskirts. The first exposure shows the area just south of Salazar’s home, where you can make out what appears to be a herd of people running maniacally down the hills towards town. Olivares precedes to walk the path of Salazar that night, showing the number of disturbing images that were taken. People hiding menacingly in the bushes. Other individuals, terrified and running for their lives. Mangled faces which appear to be gnashing or biting. The images are blurry, yet disturbing. And in the opinion of many experts who are interviewed for the film, are evidence that Salazar did not commit mass murder, but was instead a potential victim, running for his life through the town of terror, and documenting what he witnessed.
The Sheriff and the townsfolk of Hinzman, the larger city just north of Sangre de Cristo, all disagree, of course. They state emphatically that the photos are irrelevant to the case, and point to the evidence of Salazar being the only survivor, covered in the blood of 15 individuals, all while lacing their claims with the venom of borderland racism. Meanwhile, Lawrence Ross, while moved by the enigmatic photos, makes allusions to the possibility that a larger body of individuals (perhaps the police department?) would be the only ones with the resources to pull off such a feat as wiping out a town. His theory? Good old fashioned white man hatred. The inhabitants of Sangre de Cristo were primarily Mexican.
In the end, Salazar’s conviction is upheld, and he is put to death via lethal injection. The film wraps, however, divulging the knowledge that Salazar’s prison grave had been “robbed” recently, and that there are a string of unsolved murders in clusters moving increasingly north, leaving the audience to wonder if Salazar really didn’t escape the horror of what occurred that night, but instead became a victim after all.
This film is perhaps one of the best zombie movies that I have ever seen, because it is not just a cut and dry zombie movie. Not once does anyone in the film come out and use the word “zombie”, which lends towards the incredible realism that was created here. It is simply understood by the audience that what ravaged through Sangre de Cristo was not of this world. The 36 exposures are hazy and blurred with motion, but show just enough horror to be unsettling. To add to the chaos and confusion, what appears to the audience as a clear invasion of the undead is embroiled in the immense and true-to-life debate on illegal immigration and border security. And, referencing my three rules listed above, the B role is not just stunning; it’s emotional.
The casting in this movie is superb. No well-known names that might bring the realism down a notch can be found in the credits. Lawrence Ross, in fact, is an actual journalist, and plays himself in the film. My favorite role, however, was that of Francisco Salazar, played by Noe Montes. Fun fact – Montes is not an actor; he actually is a photographer. His portrayal of a man broken and traumatized by horrific events is award winning, in my book.
Everyone needs to see this movie. Right now. Stop what you’re doing, and find it on Amazon. Whether you love horror movies, or crime shows, or documentaries, Savageland is a film that deserves to be appreciated.
Production Budget: N/A
Domestic Total Gross: N/A
Foreign Total Gross: N/A
Total Box Office Gross: N/A
Starring: Monica Davis, Edward L. Green, Patrick Pedraza
Directed by: Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, David Whelan
Written by: Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, David Whelan
Distributor: The Massive Film Company
Release Date: February 24, 2015
Runtime: 1 hrs. 20 min.
MPAA Rating: R