Neutron vs. The Death Robots

It is perhaps a sign that I’ve succumbed to the stressors of the season that I’ve been re-watching a lot of these earlier lucha movies lately. While the Mexican wrestling movies of the late 60s and 70s can be amusingly trashy, those made a decade previous exhibit an appealing hokeyness and sincere desire to entertain that makes them, for me, the ideal form of cinematic comfort food. They also, in the case of films like 1960’s Neutron vs. The Death Robots, exhibit a not inconsiderable amount of appealing, old school style. Neutron vs. The Death Robots, the second in a series of five Neutron films, was directed by Federico Curiel, one of the most prolific directors of Mexican lucha films. Working with literally every major star in the genre, Curiel helmed a steady stream of entries that lasted from the early 60s until the twilight of the Mexican wrestling film’s popularity in the late 70s, in the process providing the genre with its last box office hurrah with 1972’s wildly successful Las Momias de Guanajuato.

Like a lot of lucha film directors, Curiel seemed to lose his artistic footing a bit with the transition to color in the late 60s. As a result, many of his later films have a harsh, overlit look to them and an unimaginative approach to composition. This may very well be due to the drastically reduced budgets that directors had to work with during the genre’s waning years, which likely necessitated a reductive point-and-shoot style both for the sake of haste and to cover for the lack of elaborate sets. (One notable exception to this practice is Braniac director Chano Urueta, who compensated for his lack of materials by infusing the two Blue Demon features he directed – Blue Demon contra Cerebros Infernales and Blue Demon contra Las Diabolicas – with an abundance of bright primary colors that turned them into vivid, live-action cartoons.)

By comparison, in the case of Death Robots, Curiel — at the time still working within the relative security of the Mexican studio system, with its comparatively generous budgeting for art direction and set design, and filming in rich black and white — is clearly in his element. The director had recently completed the twelve-part vampire serial The Curse of Nostradamus, and seems to have carried the moody, gothic ambience established there over into the first three Neutron films, which were all shot by Curiel in close succession using the same cast and resources. (Curiel also had to shoot each film in half hour long “chapters”, which were then assembled into feature form — a sort of “go-around” to circumvent regulations enforced upon the studio, Estudios America, due to its affiliation with the union STIC, whose authority had been limited by presidential decree to the production of short films and serials.)

The combination of the shadowy tones of classic Hollywood horror and noir films with the wholesome thrills of the Republic superhero serials of the 40s was a hallmark of early lucha films, and the Neutron films offer an example of the practice at its most visually sumptuous and alluring. To some extent the films even prefigure Hollywood’s current vogue for “going dark” with costumed hero tales. And Neutron could hardly present us with a better hero to receive such treatment, blessed as he is with mysterious origins, a disturbing habit of popping up unexpectedly in peoples’ bedrooms, and what one could easily be forgiven for describing as a gimp mask.

While Santo is unquestionably the most famous face in lucha cinema, it might surprise some to learn that Mexico’s most famous wrestling star almost missed the boat altogether in terms of his onscreen career — and that the genre nonetheless managed to chug along without him for the better part of its fledgling decade. Santo’s first missed opportunity for movie stardom came in the early 50s, when producers approached him about appearing in a personally tailored, twelve chapter serial entitled El Enmascarado de Plata (meaning “The Silver Mask”, an appellation with which Santo had already become popularly identified). Santo refused, and the serial was eventually released in 1952 with rival wrestler El Medico Asesino as its star, though not before the producers had exacted a little symbolic revenge by making “El Enmascarado de Plata” the name of the villain rather than the hero of the piece.

With or without Santo’s participation, the popularity of lucha libre among the Mexican public insured that masked wrestlers were going to have a pronounced presence on the country’s cinema screens. And so, throughout the 50s, a variety of fictional wrestlers and masked heroes were concocted to fill the vacuum. These included the masked luchador Huracan Ramirez, as well as more traditional, serial-inspired heroes like La Sombra Vengadora, who, while not presented as wrestlers per se, encouraged the association by way of their lace-up masks, bare chests and frequent employment of flying drop kicks.

It is to this last mentioned category that Neutron belongs. And while he did not technically beat the silver-masked one to the big screen, I think he can still be said to be a product of the aforementioned Santo gap. As for Santo, when he finally did decide to make his leap to the screen, he somewhat curiously chose to do so as a co-star in a couple of fairly inauspicious, low budget Cuban productions, both released in 1958. The following two years saw Santo’s acting career bear no further fruit, which resulted in him not making his debut in a Mexican production until his starring turn in Santo contra los Zombies, which was released nearly a year after the initial Neutron film, Neutron, el Enmascarado Negro and its two immediate sequels.

Starring in the Neutron films was a Latvian born actor and professional wrestler by the name of Wolf Ruvinskis. Ruvinskis spent a lot of his screen career playing heavies, and is probably most recognizable to cult film fans for his role as Argos, the impressively buff and ring-ready leader of the invading Martian force in Santo vs. the Martian Invasion. Three years previous to his debut as Neutron, he had appeared in Fernando Mendez’s Ladron de Cadaveres, a film that was important in the history of lucha cinema for being the first to place elements of the classic horror film within a wrestling milieu. The story of the film — which was later essentially recycled to provide the plot for the first of the Lorena Velazquez/Elizabeth Campbell Wrestling Women movies, Las Luchadoras contra el Medico Asesino (aka Doctor of Doom) — concerned a mad scientist who switched the brains of an ape and a wrestler (Ruvinskis) with predictably monstrous results. More important than the story, however, was the visual grammar employed by Mendez to tell it, which, in borrowing the German Expressionist-inspired look of the early Universal horror films, paved the way for later Gothic-tinged masked wrestler outings like the classic Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro and, of course, the Neutron films.

While Ruvinskis’ part in the Neutron films required him to play Neutron’s alter ego Carlos, I can’t say with absolute certainty that in all cases he appeared on screen as the masked hero himself. I will say, though, that, from seeing him in films like Ladron de Cadaveres and Santo vs. the Martian Invasion, he certainly appeared to possess the proper amount of athleticism for the role, and that there are definitely moments when it looked to me like it was him behind the character’s distinctive black, lightning bolt adorned mask. In any case, whoever played the part, Neutron definitely makes for a credibly super-heroic presence, sporting a trim, sculpted build that stands in sharp contrast to the more stocky frames of some of the considerably older, real-life wrestlers who would soon be appearing in these type of films as idealized versions of themselves. The masked man also proves no slouch in the fighting department, including among his arsenal of moves an impressive flying drop kick, as well as some fairly convincing looking fist work. (Yes, that’s right. I said “fist work”. Even though I know what associations the phrase — when thought of in connection with Neutron’s head-enveloping, black mask – will conjure.)

Now, there are a number of reasons why I have singled out Neutron vs. The Death Robots as the most noteworthy of the Neutron films. (For one thing: Best. Title. Ever.) As I mentioned earlier, it was the second Neutron film, and as such stood as the middle part of a trilogy comprised of the first three, which together tell one continuous story. However, while the first film is burdened with having to establish the many characters and conflicts that will play out throughout the trilogy, and the third film, Neutron contra el Dr. Caronte, has the chore of tying up all of the loose ends, Death Robots is largely left free of such expositional baggage to just go about the business of being an exciting little adventure yarn. As such, it is easily the most action-packed of the three, boasting a propulsive forward momentum that neither of its two, considerably more talky companion films can hope to match.

Second of all, Death Robots has a great villain, present in the first film, but given far more prominence here. Dr. Caronte is a classic movie megalomaniac, prone to grandiose, fist-shaking proclamations that never leave the audience in any doubt as to what exactly his evil schemes entail, or what his glowing estimation of his own capabilities might be, much less his withering disdain for all the haters and wannabes who, one assumes, bear some real or imagined responsibility for him choosing his current, super-villainous path. The masked Caronte also boasts an outfit that speaks of a certain career ambivalence, one part surgeon’s scrubs and one part wrestling togs, that makes for a pretty memorable visual image, especially for the way its blinding whiteness stands out against the backdrop of Caronte’s gloom-enshrouded laboratory hideaway.

And then there are the film’s monsters, the titular Death Robots, who are basically an army of faceless, coverall clad zombies — hirsute but for the encroaching male pattern baldness that each exhibits — whom Caronte appears to bake into life in a series of what look like futuristic pizza ovens. As ridiculous as they may sound, Curiel puts a lot of work into giving these silent, lumbering killers a delicious creepiness, frequently announcing their arrival in a scene by first showing their slowly advancing shadows looming up on a wall behind an unsuspecting victim.

But Caronte’s crew is not comprised entirely of Death Robots. There is also his assistant Nick, a bowlegged dwarf with a fearsome unibrow, who — in both the Spanish and English language versions of the film — is dubbed with a strangled, high-pitched voice that makes him sound like a constipated muppet. Caronte generally treats Nick like a sort of fetish object, even referring to him at one point as his “good luck charm”, and the two have a tendency to walk hand-in-hand as they tool around their lair. As with the Death Robots, Curiel brings all of his cinematic flair to bear on the task of accentuating the odd and disquieting nature of this character’s appearance, and is especially fond of using Nick’s height as an excuse to shoot scenes by angling up from his eye level, all the better to take advantage of the impressive, three-leveled set that stands in for the Doctor’s laboratory. In fact, it is during those scenes with Nick, the Doctor and the Death Robots in Dr. Caronte’s laboratory that Neutron vs. The Death Robots most seems to spring to life, giving you the clear sense that it is in the more spooky aspects of the film’s world that Curiel most feels at home.

Death Robots begins by briskly recapping the events of the first film by means of a handy television newscast, and in the process reintroduces us to the series’ recurring cast of characters. That film strove to create an air of mystery around Neutron’s identity by providing us with three leading men, each of whom could ultimately be revealed – and at various times were hinted to be – the masked hero’s alter ego. These three included Ruvinskis in the role of playboy Carlos; biologist Jaime, played by Armando Silvestre; and popular television commentator Mario, played by Julio Aleman. Several years later, Aleman would get his own chance to play a masked movie avenger, in the flatly ridiculous Rocambole series, which took a Fantomas-like 19th century French pulp character and turned him into a Batman-style hero complete with a risible costume featuring a chest emblem of a giant arrow pointing downward into his trunks.

Carlos and his two handsome buddies seem to be inseparable, working out and showering at the gym together and, even, by appearances, living together in the big mansion that Jaime inherited from his dad, a scientist who was killed in the first movie. But lest you get the wrong idea, all three men also share the same love interest, Nora (Rosita Arenas), a singer at the popular nightspot La Roca. Nora’s choice of vocation affords the filmmakers plenty of opportunities to pad Death Robots running time with musical numbers, and not just Nora’s, but those performed by her fellow nightclub performers as well. Some have complained that these interludes only serve to slow the picture down, but, personally, I like them; Curiel employs the same noirish play of light and shadow evident elsewhere in the film in capturing these numbers and, as such, I think they provide Death Robots with a nice touch of B movie glamour.

Rounding out Team Neutron is Dr. Thomas, a European scientist who also seems to live in the house with Carlos, Jaime and Mario, and who keeps a pretty impressive laboratory filled with blinking control panels there to boot. Dr. Thomas is played by Grek Martin, aka Jack Taylor, aka George Randall, an American expatriate actor who, after relocating to Spain, made his living by appearing in quite a few European and Mexican genre pictures over the course of his career. The former included a healthy(?) number of films for Jesse Franco, including Bare Breasted Countess, French Emanuelle and Porno Shock, among others. Martin/Taylor has a sinister quality that has you continually expecting him to be revealed as the bad guy throughout the Neutron pictures, even though he never is. Or I should say, technically he never is, since in the third film Dr. Caronte uses black magic to transmigrate his soul into Dr. Thomas’ body.

The first Neutron film concluded with Carlos unmasking himself as Neutron to his friends. However, at some point between the production of that film and Death Robots, it was decided that it was best to keep the whole “who is Neutron?” gimmick going, and so we begin Death Robots with all of the characters having conveniently forgotten the whole incident. As a result, we go back to the earlier movie’s routine of having everybody intermittently accusing one another of being Neutron, while having occasional clues dropped by the filmmakers implicating one or the other of them as the hero’s alter ego. It would contribute a lot to the general air of fun that the film sustains if you hadn’t seen the first film — or if you hadn’t read all of the spoilers in this review.

The MacGuffin that drives Dr. Caronte’s actions throughout the first three Neutron films is a device somewhat confusingly referred to as the Neutron Bomb. In this context, one might expect this to be a bomb that only kills Neutron, but it is instead a spiky metal ball that emits a gas that dissolves everyone within a certain radius. The rather heavy-handed efforts of Caronte and his associates to get their hands on the bomb’s formula in the first film resulted in all of the scientists responsible for its creation — including Jaime’s father — being killed in one way or another. And as we catch up with Caronte in the opening moments of Death Robots, we find that he has had little Nick exhume those scientists’ corpses to further his evil scheme. The Doctor has since removed the brains from those corpses with the intention of combining them into one super-brain, which he will control and communicate with via an infernal machine he has created for the purpose. In order to do so, however, he will need “LOTS of blood”, and so the Death Robots are sent forth to find some hapless citizens of Mexico City to exsanguinate.

Unfortunately, Dr. Caronte’s worst enemy turns out to be his own egomania, as his insistence upon leaving a distinctive coin at the site of each murder quickly alerts Team Neutron to the fact that he is far more not dead than he appeared to be at the end of the last film. Soon Neutron enlists the gang in helping him set up a sting operation of sorts to capture one of the Death Robots, with the plan being to then follow the thing back to Caronte’s hideout. With his disembodied super-brain having filled him in on the necessary ingredients for the bomb, Caronte is now having the robots raid local chemical warehouses for the materials, and it is at one of these that Neutron, along with police Inspector Lozano (Rodolfo Landa), makes the catch. Things fail to go as planned, however, because as soon as the targeted Death Robot realizes it is being followed, it commits suicide by pulling off its own head — in what I probably don’t need to tell you is Neutron vs. The Death Robots‘ crowning moment of awesomeness.

Eventually Caronte gathers all of the materials he need to make the Neutron Bomb, but then decides that he needs Dr. Thomas to help him assemble it. Thus Neutron’s primary task becomes defending Thomas against Nick and the Death Robots’ repeated attempts to abduct him. Meanwhile, all of Neutron’s three possible alter egos still find plenty of time to hang around La Roca, watch an assortment of musical numbers in their entirety, and simultaneously hit on the understandably put-upon Nora. This all comes to an end when Caronte succeeds, not only in kidnapping Thomas (by employing a Death Robot disguised as Neutron!), but Nora, as well. Thus, by bartering Nora’s life, is the villain able to strong arm Thomas into helping him.

Once the bomb is completed, Caronte initiates a somewhat harebrained extortion scheme that involves having the bomb placed in a flight bag that Nick, disguised as a miniature cab driver, then stashes among other pieces of luggage on a baggage cart at the Mexico City airport. This, of course, sets the stage for the old suitcase switch-a-roo, and an innocent couple, mistaking the bag for their own, ends up grabbing it and heading off home. This leads to a hilarious series of scenes in which Neutron, the cops, and the Death Robots alternately barge unexpectedly into various citizens’ homes looking for the case. One imagines that the acting abilities of the bit players involved were taxed to their limits as they attempted to portray the reactions of normal people to having their homes invaded by either a bare-chested man in a black wrestling mask or a dwarf accompanied by a contingent of long-haired, faceless zombies.

Eventually the bomb is recovered and taken to Thomas’s lab to be diffused. Here Dr. Caronte makes an unexpected appearance, leading to a protracted smack-down between him and Neutron that, after a break for a bit of chasing around, has its windup in Caronte’s hideout. At this point, we get an example of that classic exchange in which the villain exhorts the hero to join him, with Caronte telling Neutron that together they “could be invincible” and Neutron, of course, voicing his staunch refusal. This dialogue goes on for quite some time, and the great thing about it is that Neutron and Caronte never once pause from furiously beating the shit out of one another while delivering it, with the result that what sounds like an argument between two people sitting across a table from one another is heard as the participants flip and hurl one another all over the room.

Unlike in Neutron, el Enmascarado Negro, no reveal of Neutron’s identity is made at the end of Death Robots. In fact, pretty much every aspect of Neutron remains shrouded in mystery, other than the obvious – i.e. that he works out a lot, likes to expose his nipples to open air while having his head encased in nylon, and lives to smote evildoers, though not necessarily in that order. Basically, we experience Neutron as the other characters in the film do, only seeing him when he shows up to do his job and never being privy to what the behind-the-scenes of being Neutron is all about. This extends to us not knowing just how Neutron always knows exactly where and when trouble is going to pop up. Unlike with Santo, we don’t get to see him tooling around in a laboratory served by live feeds from cameras seemingly placed randomly all over Mexico. All we know is that he shows up in the nick of time, and does so pretty much without fail.

And if there was one bone I’d pick with Neutron vs. The Death Robots, it would be that one: That the predictability of Neutron showing up — completely without explanation — whenever peril arises ends up robbing the film to some extent of drama and suspense. In a couple of cases, Neutron arrives so swiftly on the heels of the Death Robots that we don’t even have time to register the threat. On the other hand, though, I think that this is in part a result of the film’s approach to action being more about velocity than build-up, and scenes such as those certainly do contribute to an air of breathless excitement — almost as if we are watching a story projected directly from the brain of a sugar-addled eight-year-old boy who’s caught up in the excitement of recounting the action of the cartoon he’s just watched.

Dr Caronte would return for one last go around, in Neutron contra el Doctor Caronte, in which he would battle a gang of foreign agents for possession of the Neutron Bomb and engage in the aforementioned black magic shenanigans before being unmasked and served his final comeuppance at the film’s conclusion. After that, Neutron would disappear from Mexico’s cinema screens for several years, until 1964, at the height of the lucha movie boom, when the character would be revived for two one-off features, Neutron contra los Asesinos del Karate and Neutron contra el Criminal Sadico. With the exception of Ruvinskis in the title role, gone would be the earlier films’ cast of regular characters, as would be director Curiel (German import Alfredo B. Crevenna — another ubiquitous presence during the heyday of lucha cinema — would take the helm instead). As a result, these titles lacked the dense, spook show atmosphere created by Curiel for the earlier films and, as such, had little to distinguish them from the typical Mexican wrestling fare that was being produced at the time. An unfortunate revamping of Neutron’s mask — which, if anything, made it look even more gimp-like — did nothing to help matters.

Soon thereafter, four of the Neutron pictures, including Death Robots, were picked up and dubbed into English for American television (a fifth, unrelated lucha film, El Asesino Invisible, was also included in the package under the revamped title Neutron Traps the Invisible Killers). These would become staples of Saturday afternoon TV at roughly the same time that K. Gordon Murray’s dubbed versions of the Santo films were hitting the U.S. airwaves, with the result that — in the USA at least — Neutron garnered nearly as high a profile as Mexico’s number one Luchador.

Of course, in Mexico it was a different story. Though that is not to say that Neutron didn’t have some cultural impact of his own. The initial trio of films spawned a fumetti-style series of Neutron photo comics that, for a while, competed on the country’s newsstands with Santo’s own popular comic, and, in later years, both the Neutron name and classic mask would come to be adopted by some real-life practitioners of lucha libre. Still, the enormity of Santo’s fame — not to mention that of his closest competitors, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras — nonetheless consigned Neutron once and evermore to the category of also-ran.

That their hero was something of a second-class citizen in lucha movie circles does not, however, take away from the fact that the early Neutron films, and Death Robots in particular, are excellent examples of their genre — better, in fact, than many of those films that starred Neutron’s more well-known competitors. In fact, to my mind, there are few films that, when combined with a suitable quantity of alcohol, could provide a better cure for the blues, holiday or otherwise.

Release Year: 1960 | Country: Mexico | Starring: Wolf Ruvinskis, Julio Aleman, Armando Silvestre, Rodolfo Landa, Rosita Arenas, Jack Taylor (as Grek Martin), Ernesto Finance, David Lama, Roberto Ramirez Garza | Director: Federico Curiel | Writer: Federico Curiel, Alfredo Ruanova | Music: Enrico C. Cabiati | Producer: Emilio Gomez Muriel | Also known as: Los Automatas de la Muerte, Neutron the Atomic Superman vs. the Death Robots