Twenty years ago when I was an enthusiastic but not that good internet movie reviewer I wrote a column called “I have seen the future of Badass pictures,” because I had seen THE DAY OF THE BEAST (1995) and PERDITA DURANGO (1997), the second and third films of Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia. Although the director hasn’t quite become a household name here in the intervening years, he has made many interesting films, of which I’ve reviewed 800 BULLETS (2002), FERPECT CRIME (2004) and THE LAST CIRCUS (2010). He’s still going strong, for example I’ve heard good things about his recent TV show 30 Coins.
For the holidays I rewatched the Christmas-Eve-set THE DAY OF THE BEAST (it held up – I wrote about it a little bit on Letterboxd) and I’d been meaning to revisit PERDITA DURANGO for quite some time. Reviewing Javier Bardem’s first English language movie, where he plays a human-sacrificing psycho who looks like this…
…as a followup to his more Oscar-baity turn in BEING THE RICARDOS is the sort of thing that amuses me, so I pulled the trigger.
PERDITA DURANGO is based on a 1992 book called 59° and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango by Barry Gifford (who co-wrote the script with de la Iglesia and two others). It’s part 3 in the Sailor and Lula series, part 1 being the basis of WILD AT HEART. (Isabella Rossellini played Perdita in David Lynch’s movie.)
I haven’t read the book, but I ought to, because the movie is something special. To me it feels kinda like a pulp crime novel cranked up to 22, left out in the sun all day, soaked in absinthe and cactus juice and launched into Hell duct-taped to the back of a flaming boombox blasting Johnny Cash. I feel like it has some overlap with NATURAL BORN KILLERS, but more focused and with less pretense. It’s my preferred take on the apocalyptic romantic fever dream crime spree movie that doesn’t give a fuck.
Dancer and choreographer Rosie Perez had established herself as an actor in DO THE RIGHT THING, FEARLESS and WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP, and at this point had done a run of nice romantic movies like UNTAMED HEART, IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU and SOMEBODY TO LOVE. And yet she seems born to play Perdita, a chainsmokin-hot purveyor of casual mayhem. The kind of person who steals a car by smashing the window with an urn, frightens random children by telling them about the murder of her sister and her “two little girls that looked just like you,” then brings them along to spread the ashes.
She seems like she brings trouble wherever she goes, but this story is about what happens when she hooks up with a guy even worse than her. Romeo Dolorosa (Bardem sporting a long on the back, shaved on the sides haircut that’s like the Queen Alien to any standard mullet’s Xenomorph) is introduced snake-head-boots first. While browsing CDs at a kiosk on the American side of the US-Mexico border, he spots Perdita sipping Coca-Cola from the bottle through a straw, reflected in the jewel case of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Greatest Hits.
When he checks her out she scoffs and looks away as if not interested, while suggestively resting one long thumbnail against her lower lip.
He goes over and hits on her, and every way she insults him or tells him to fuck off makes him even more smitten with her. (Most guys get scared.) Soon he’s confessing to having robbed a bank (while wearing an El Santo mask) earlier in the day. His story (at least as we see it in flashback form) includes a whole section about being distracted by a hostage’s breasts, and another about screwing over (and running over) his partner (Santiago Segura, THE DAY OF THE BEAST, BLADE II). Not a great brag, but somehow it gets Perdita in his SUV, which has a chain link steering wheel, cow-print (SUPER FLY T.N.T.?) seat covers and Christmas lights. He has physical scars from his days as a bullfighter and mental ones from when he was Marine in Beirut. She says he looks like an extra from a Black Sabbath video (plus one homophobic slur), but she’s obviously intrigued.
Showing her what he calls “science,” he puts his magic necklaces on top of the dead security guard and $12,000 in stolen cash in the back of the truck and crosses the border without a problem. So she comes to see him in his day job as a Santeria priest.
If you somehow don’t think of Bardem as a go-for-broke actor, just wait until you see him twitching and dancing around, roaring and rolling his eyes back like a demon, convulsing in the dirt, smearing his face with cocaine, hacking up a naked corpse with a machete, throwing the limbs in a big bucket of blood, spitting the blood into people’s faces, carving the heart out and throwing it against the wall. The great Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (A RAGE IN HARLEM) plays his partner, passing the plate around, shooting flames from his hands. I love hearing that trademark Screamin’ Jay laugh in the background, kind of low in the mix because he’s not the craziest thing going on in this scene.
The balls-to-the-walls-ness of that scene are emblematic of the whole tone of the endeavor. There are over-the-top bed-frame-slamming-against-the-wall, riding-him-like-a-bronco, kissing-like-they’re-trying-to-swallow-each-other sex scenes. People are set on fire, eyeballs are stabbed out with broken bottles, a character who’s already been hit by a car gets pulled through a windshield by his tie and beaten until his neck brace falls off. And I believe it’s one of the only movies where Screamin’ Jay Hawkins fires a machine gun.
I said Romeo was worse than Perdita, but she’s actually the one who proposes killing and eating someone. She comes up with the idea, giggling, while she’s in the bath tub sucking on Romeo’s big toe. Later, while driving and drinking more Coke she muses, “I think if we’re gonna do a kidnapping we should get a gringo. It’ll be impressive.”
“Fucking hell!” Romeo says, delighted. “Living with you will be kick ass!”
I thought this movie was interesting 20 years ago; I liked it way more this time. But you gotta be on a particular wavelength that is probly less popular now than it was then. This is a joyously amoral movie for most of its running time. Perdita and Romeo have a fun time doing absolutely terrible and unjustifiable deeds. Their wickedness is so outlandish that the world they’re unleashing it in has to work hard to keep up.
We first see dorky gringo Duane (Harley Cross, COHEN & TATE, THE FLY II) nervously meeting his Spring Break date’s polyester-clad parents among the plastic-covered furniture in their beautifully gaudy living room. Mr. Satisfy (Roger Cudney, SLAUGHTER, REMO WILLIAMS) leaves him hanging on the handshake because he’s too busy using some kind of hand exercise gadget (if it’s real I’m sure there was an infomercial for it) and watching Mary Tyler Moore. But he tells him, “Duane, in this world you have to be in control. It’s the only thing that makes us different from the animals.” He also tries to tell him about Herb Alpert, one thing he has in common with Romeo.
Estelle (Aimee Graham, who had already played “Blonde Hostage” in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN!) wears all red and smiles and moshes around her all pink bedroom stocked with two Mickey Mouse dolls and one Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) poster as she engages her clip-on bellybutton ring. Needless to say her idea of what constitutes danger and edginess will evolve very soon.
Perdita says she wants a blond. Romeo gets out of the truck and starts grabbing random guys from a crowded sidewalk, pointing and giving Perdita a look that says, “This one?” When she’s happy with Duane he decides to do a two-for-one deal.
Forgive me Father for I find the stereotypical white-American-ness of these completely undeserving victims to be at times very funny. It’s a humor that’s not for everyone, but I admit I got a kick out of these brightly colored clueless innocents suddenly getting yanked out of vacation into total chaos. Horrors like this are so far out of their experience that Duane just can’t stop saying things like, “I mean, this can’t be happening!,” like if he points it out enough eventually reality will realize there has been some sort of mix-up. At one point he thinks it’s cultural, saying something about I know my people have oppressed your people, getting a big laugh out of them. They don’t give a shit. They just thought it would be fun to sacrifice some white people. Maybe paint them more white and glue chicken feathers to them. That kind of stuff. Their own version of Spring Break.
Now I have to endanger whatever good will remains by warning you that this is a movie that insists on crossing lines, including the most repulsive one: Romeo and Perdita rape Estelle and Duane. It’s not only an act of violence but a complicated mind game. They trick the captives into thinking each other did it willingly, making Estelle jealous of Perdita and Duane jealous of Romeo, and as a side effect they get suspicious and jealous about each others’ desires.
I’m glad that scene is over quick, that complications from Romeo’s other crimes keep interrupting the sacrifice, that (SPOILER) Perdita lets them go at the end, and most of all that they evolve from caricatures to characters by the time they’re waiting around on a couch with some of Romeo’s stoner friends, skimming magazines and half-watching notorious tentacle-porn anime UROTSUKIDOJI II: LEGEND OF THE DEMON WOMB. I said they were annoying in my previous review, but this time I thought they worked. I really dug their transformation.
De la Iglesia’s filmatism has an earned swagger to it. With the help of cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano (de la Iglesia’s usual guy who later shot BONES, NON-STOP, THE SHALLOWS and JUNGLE CRUISE) and composer Simon Boswell (PHENOMENA, STAGEFRIGHT, LORD OF ILLUSIONS), the movie looks and sounds like an epic. There are lots of little stories told that could’ve just been dialogue but get a cutaway, from the bank robbery to the murder-suicide to the actual crucifixion of Jesus. Yes, de Le Iglesia had a part where the crucifixion was mentioned so he decided to go film a re-enactment. This brings a crazed energy to it without ever turning into that annoying Family Guy type franticness. Editor Teresa Font had also done THE DAY OF THE BEAST, but probly puts Bigas Luna’s JAMON JAMON and Pedro Almodovar’s PAIN AND GLORY at the top of her resume. Her work here feels appropriately manic yet completely under control.
My favorite mini-story is Romeo’s poetic description of meeting Perdita. “I come from the island Petit Caribe. Three miles long, a mile wide. When I was a kid, there were only two cars. And one day, of course, they crashed. Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. That’s how the world turns. That’s how you and I met, Perdita.”
He’s being romantic, but we see the cars explode into flames, just decimated. There are zero cars on the island after that. So that’s what Romeo looks forward to, I guess.
There are many directions it could come from. His ex-partner is after him for revenge. He owes twenty-some-grand to a sicko named Catalina (Demian Bichir, SAVAGES, MACHETE KILLS, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, ALIEN: COVENANT, GODZILLA VS. KONG). An asshole DEA agent named Willie “Woody” Dumas (James Gandolfini, after TRUE ROMANCE and CRIMSON TIDE) has been trailing him. And his cousin Reggie (Bardem’s brother Carlos) has convinced him to take a job from another untrustworthy crime boss, “Mad Eyes” Santos (Don Stroud, COOGAN’S BLUFF, DEATH WEEKEND, LICENCE TO KILL, DJANGO UNCHAINED). But don’t call him “Mad Eyes,” Reggie says. He hates that.
The job is to smuggle a semi full of human embryos to a cosmetics company to turn into moisturizer. Well, they call them embryos, but they sure look like fetuses. The William S. Burroughsness of the job description alone would help me to love the movie, but I am happy to report that shit goes south and there’s a big shootout with chunky squibs and the truck graphically backing over a dude as jars of, uh, product spill out all over the highway. In the aftermath, a fed played by REPO MAN director Alex Cox picks up one of the fetuses, says “Charly, make sure this baby gets a decent burial,” and hands it to some poor guy who doesn’t necessarily seem like he wants to be holding it but feels compelled to say “thank you” anyway.
It’s funny watching this after BEING THE RICARDOS and realizing that Bardem plays Romeo pretty close to how he plays Desi Arnaz. Obviously there are moral (and fashion) differences between the two, but both operate on a similar type of charisma, confident they can get away with anything if they keep smiling, laughing, denying, and staying positive. At least until their luck runs out.
There’s an interesting turn when Romeo finds out his beloved grandmother (Josefina Echanove, AMITYVILLE 3-D) has been attacked, and she tells him, “They said you owed Catalina money, but I knew they were lying because I raised you to know the difference between right and wrong.” I think this is our only evidence that he was once a good person! I guess having a nice grandma isn’t enough.
When I saw PERDITA DURANGO 20 years ago it was called the unrated version, but it was still a shorter American cut released under the title DANCE WITH THE DEVIL. I did not remember that the name came from a scene where Romeo leaves with Estelle to pull a stunt he has not explained to Perdita, and she’s suspicious of him. When she asks where he’s going he says, “I’m going to dance with the devil under the pale moonlight.”
I’m thinking that’s weird he would say that. That’s from BATMAN. It wasn’t a quote, it was written for BATMAN.
“Go fuck yourself, Romeo,” Perdita says.
And then Romeo says, “What’s wrong? It’s from BATMAN!”
“Fuck BATMAN!” she says.
Good stuff. (quotes are not endorsements)
I guess there were a variety of different censored cuts around the world. There is now a 4K director’s cut from Severin, and from what I’ve read the version I watched on Shudder seemed to have all the stuff that used to be missing from various releases. Apparently the version I watched before was not only edited for sex and violence, but also to save money on clearances of the movies and TV shows on screens. So I had not seen the excellent climax where a dying Romeo ends up in footage from VERA CRUZ as if he’s been killed by Gary Cooper. He had earlier explained his love for the movie and Burt Lancaster’s death in it because “It’s a dramatic ending. It’s the perfect ending for a man. The true path to Sainthood.”
For him it’s a happy ending, dying like the bad guy in his favorite movie. Perdita, who exhibits at least some signs of a conscience, survives into a sad ending, left mourning that asshole on the Las Vegas Strip, at least according to Wikipedia. In actuality it’s not the Strip, it’s Fremont Street, with its four block long, 90 foot high canopy that’s basically a giant LED screen that plays a tacky light show. That was new at the time, but it’s in the old downtown of Vegas, surrounded by historic neon signs, so it’s way more Perdita’s speed than, say, the fountain show at Bellagio. I’m sure they chose that location just for the visuals, but it’s fitting. Vintage but timeless, classic but crass, aggressively shallow, performatively excessive, kind of ghastly, kind of wonderful, just like PERDITA DURANGO.