‘Memory of the Dead’ Review
Horror movies don’t necessarily need rules, but if they’re going to go to the trouble to establish some, they might as well follow them… at least for a little while. The Argentine ghost slasher gorefest ‘Memory of the Dead’ sets up this whole conceit about a Satanic ritual and the dead rising from their graves, and it makes a big stink about how everyone will be safe from the ghouls as long as they stay inside their house. But no sooner have they laid all this out than they immediately throw it out the window. No one goes outside, but the ghouls get in anyway. So why bother explaining it if it doesn’t actually matter?
It’s quite possible that the creators of ‘Memory of the Dead’ would argue that the constant confusion is part of the point; theirs is a horror film about the way people deal with grief, and its borderline psychotic narrative progression (or digression, or regression) is intended as more of a reflection of traumatized mental states than coherent storytelling. But without any sort of real narrative hook, and with very little in the way of compelling characters, all of the film’s deranged visuals amount to little more than a colorful freak show; all shock, no awe.
Yeah, sure, the sight of a woman sewing her eyes and mouth shut and then prying the sutures open is pretty gross, and a baby clawing its way out of a pregnant woman’s stomach is nobody’s idea of a good time. If all you want out of a horror movie is disgusting imagery, then ‘Memory of the Dead’ will certainly satisfy you (or disgust you, as the case may be). But if you want anything else — plot, characters, suspense, drama, intrigue, humor, stakes, literally anything — you will not be pleased.
This is all the more disappointing because the premise — written by Martín Blousson, Nicanor Loreti, Germán Val, and director Valentín Javier Diment — sounds intriguing. A woman named Alicia (Lola Berthet) awakens one morning from a horrible nightmare about her husband Jorge (Gabriel Goity) committing suicide, only to discover him dead in bed beside her. Forty-nine days later, Alicia gathers all of Jorge’s closest friends together for a formal farewell. She reads a letter he wrote to each of his loved ones, and then they unveil a painting that one of the guests made for the occasion. But just as everyone is settling in for the night, the clock strikes 12 and suddenly the friends’ dead relatives begin appearing outside. The one person who ventures out to say “Hey wassup not-at-all-creepy-ghost-kid-playing-on-a-swing-set?” does not return.
Alicia reveals that this is all part of a ritual to bring Jorge back to life — and that they’ll all be safe if they just stay inside until morning (SPOILER ALERT: they won’t). Then they all start wandering off on their own, encountering their own personal demons, and offering Diment his big chance to freak us out with all sorts of horrible visions of buried trauma. It’s a good thing this Jorge guy’s friends were all physically or mentally abused, or had dead siblings they never met, or were involved in incestuous relationships with their parents. Otherwise, this movie would be boring as well as ridiculous and silly.
Give Diment credit: some of effects are pretty creepy (the little girl whose face is totally blank until she starts ripping open orifices in her skin with her fingers, that, uh, that was really something). Bringing truly demented imagery to the screen is clearly a skill he has already mastered. Bringing that demented imagery together into something larger than just a bunch of wackadoo moments he still needs to work on.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’