There is no Rock Madison.
By Mark Voger, author
‘Holly Jolly: Celebrating Christmas Past in Pop Culture’
Fernando Cortés’ “La Marca del Muerto” (1961) is a very cool Mexican horror movie with moody cinematography, a bombastic score and a charismatic star in Mexi-Western hero Fernando Casanova. It needs no help — least of all from the hack American repackaging “specialist” Jerry Warren.
I’m spilling a little tequila on the floor in honor of Casanova, whose only film to reach American screens didn’t even bill him in the credits, despite his dual role (as a 19th-century monster, and the monster’s 20th-century grandson). Instead, the top-billed “star” of the patchquilt American version is someone who never existed.
Wha? The twisty, turny story follows …
I always had great affection for a cheezy ’60s horror flick titled “Creature of the Walking Dead” (1965), the American version of “la Marca del Muerto.” I was introduced to it via the miracle of home video — specifically, the unsustainable VHS format. Though I no long own a VHS player — who does? — I still have my VHS copy, which I keep almost like a relic, a memento of a byone era. Above is my little museum piece.
If you weren’t around in the ’80s, you’ll never know what a thrill it was to actually own a copy of a movie. It was a brand new concept! When I was in grade school in the ’70s, I used to tape movies off of television with a cassette recorder. That’s right — no video, just (lousy) audio. What else could you do back then to relive a movie?
Anyways, I figure I bought “COTWD” for $5.99 from the K-Mart in Brick in Ocean County, New Jersey, where Vanna White once did a book signing.
Above is a frame from the trailer. The title creature doesn’t actually drink their blood … and there’s no mention (or assumption) of the victims being virgins.
But much was lost in translation. Rather than dub dialogue scenes into English, Warren often used voiceover narration to “explain” what characters were saying to one another. That must have saved him a few bucks. Then he added new English-language scenes of inane exposition in static camerawork.
“la Marca del Muerto” is a great “mad doctor” and “doppelganger” movie set in the 19th century and modern times. Casanova plays the dual roles of Gonzalo Malthus, 1800s mad doctor, and Dr. Malthus, his lookalike grandson. Gonzalo is an evil madman with the posh looks of a gentleman. He wears a top hat while stalking victims (as shown above), kidnapping young women to extract their blood (or more likely their life essence) in order to achieve immortality and sustained youthfulness.
In a perfect world, “la Marca del Muerto” would have been dubbed into English by K. Gordon Muray of Coral Gables, Florida. He’s the master of “four-walling” (ask Dave Friedman) who made a mint by importing and dubbing foreign films (chiefly from Mexico) in the horror, wrestling and kiddie genres for release in American theaters and on American TV. (The 1959 holiday weirdie “Santa Claus” is one of Gordon’s most successful imports.)
Instead, “la Marca del Muerto” fell into the ham-fisted hands of Warren, who awarded star billing to Rock Madison. (More on “him” later).
Above left is Malthus’ final victim before the law catches up with him. At right is the same unfortunate lady, who was left behind to rot in Malthus’ secret lab, only to be discovered 70 years later by Malthus’ grandson. To quote Jeff Spicoli: Gnarly!
Malthus — looking exrtremely aged because he couldn’t keep up his “treatments” behind bars — meets his end at the gallows. Don’cha love the eerie lighting? The film often has a noir look courtesy of cinematographer José Ortiz Ramos, who also shot the Mexi-classics “Santo vs. the Vampire Women” (1962) and “Curse of the Crying Woman” (1963). As Malthus dangles, a priest makes the sign of the cross (with a crucifix) in the killer’s general direction. Mexican horror movies thrive on Catholic rituals and iconography.
OK, here’s where I first realized that perhaps — perhaps — the original movie was done a disservice by Warren. The tubby guy at center is genre great Bruno Vesota, who never failed to enliven the crappiest of genre films. (My favorite Vesota role: The cuckolded hillbilly husband of hotsy-totsy Yvette Vickers in “Attack of the Giant Leeches.”) But here, even Vesota struggles.
Cops endlessly discuss the Malthus case in this doesn’t-add-a-thing sequence. We’re still in the late 1800s, as you can tell by the frilly shirt of the (unlucky) masseuse played by Warren mainstay Chuck Niles. Basically, it’s a lo-o-ng scene of Vesota’s flabby left arm being diddled, poked, squeezed, slapped, fondled, fingered and palmed — all in all, a disgusting display. Unlike the fluid, conscientious work of Ramos, this here is a basic two-shot.
Warren also ran out the clock with added English-language scenes of a modern-day police station, a receptionist, a butler and a seance.
“la Marca del Muerto” has a really cool “Dark Shadows”-esque twist. (The film came out five years before the immensely popular Gothic soap opera.) In the modern day, Dr. Malthus inherits his grandfather’s home. Here, he encounters a painting of Gonzalo that makes it clear he is a dead ringer for his old grandpappy.
The “ancestor painting” is a tried-and-true trope of the Gothic horror film. (I’m picturing portraits of Vincent Price hanging on moldering castle walls in Edgar Allen Poe adaptations by Roger Corman.) The closeup of the painting at above right shows that this was a particularly well-executed movie prop.
Once Malthus III finds the (handsomely bound) lab notebook of Malthus I, he is sucked in. Again, this is a thing in horror films. In Universal’s Frankenstein series, Basil Rathbone, Cedric Hardwicke, Patrick Knowles, Boris Karloff and Onslow Stevens all caught the Frankenstein fever.
Malthus III digs up Malthus I, and Casanova gets to stretch as both characters in the same scene. Far from being grateful to be exhumed and revived, Malthus I is a complete a**hole to his grandson. But check out those Engelbert Humperdinck sideburns!
When Malthus I poses as his own grandson, his crinkled countenance is an unpleasant surprise for Malthus III’s fiance.
Spoiler alert: It all ends, as so many horror movies do, with a screaming mad doctor consumed by flames in a laboratory inferno.
P.S.: I ragged on Jerry Warren a lot, but he made important contributions to schlock cinema. (There’s a special place in my heart for “Frankenstein Island.”) We horror freaks have very low standards. We’ll watch anything.
So who’s this Rock Madison?
Warren, who died in 1988, has been quoted as saying he invented the name “Rock Madison” to make the cast seem bigger. (Apparently, he used the name in 1956’s “Man Beast” also.) I remember reading that quote years ago, but I don’t remember the source. Could it have been in a Tom Weaver interview? If so, it’s solid information. In any case, a non-existent person received top billing in “Creature of the Walking Dead,” as seen in the trailer above.
Warren said he dreamt up “Rock Madison” as a mash-up of Rock Hudson (left) and Guy Madison (right), which is pretty hilarious. (Were Troy Donahue and Rory Calhoun miffed?) At right is the real star of “Creature of the Walking Dead.”
The Rock Madison myth was enabled by GoodTimes Home Video, with its 1988 release of “COTWD” on VHS. Rock Madison is billed on the VHS tape label (above left) and the box-side (above right).
On GoodTimes’ box-back, Rock Madison is billed as having portrayed “Dr. Martin Malthus/Dr. John Malthus.” (This isn’t expressly stated in Warren’s credits, though arguably, it is implied.)
I ain’t playin’ “gotcha” with the folks at GoodTimes. I mean, this was 1988. There was no Googling back then. Fandom has come a long way in 34 years. But something tells me the guys at Something Weird Video would have known better. (Then again, SWV’s stuff was never sold at the K-Mart in Brick.)
Remembering the original
Dashing Casanova (1925-2012) was born in Guadalajara and died in Mexico City at age 86. He debuted as an extra in the 1947 comedy “La vida íntima de Marco Antonio y Cleopatra,” and appeared in more than 180 films, including Luis Buñuel‘s “Él” (1952). Cassanova specialized in Westerns and in films of the “ranchera comedy” Mexican genre. (I own two sets of ’em. Even without subtitles, they’re fantastic.)
Casanova’s first starring role was as the Zorro-like masked hero in “El águila negra” (see video below), a role he repeated in several productions. (Perhaps Casanova was the Batman of Mexico?) He starred in “Four Bullets for Joe,” a 1964 “spaghetti Western” that was a co-production of Italy, Spain and Mexico, and played a character named Fernando in at least three movies starring the masked wrestler Santo. Casanova’s films were almost exclusively Mexican, but he did appear in a 1976 episode of the American TV series “The Rookies,” as a character named Santos.
Above is the movie poster and title card for “La Marca del Muerto.” I can’t locate a version with subtitles. But, hey, I own many Mexican films that have no subtitles or dubbing. Cinema is like love — it’s an international language, yo!
Above is the original Mexican film from 1961.
Above is the trailer for Warren’s patchquilt American version.
Above is “El águila negra” (1953) starring Fernando Casanova as the titlular hero.
The poster for the American version. S’funny, but I want to replace the tagline “A Horror-Cade of Excitement” with “A Horror-Cade of Excrement.” But that would be disrespecting the Mexican original which, just in case I didn’t get this point across, is a cool horror movie.