June 2nd, 2011. Over the course of one night, the small Arizona border town of Sangre de Cristo was wiped out. 57 people in the area meeting a grizzly and brutal end while leaving a sole survivor who took the blame. Most of the bodies weren’t recovered and the rest were found horribly mangled. But as the case progresses, new evidence reveals a far more horrifying explanation for this massacre than a lone killer…
This is the prologue to 2015’s Savageland directed by Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, and David Whelan, setting up a haunting horror mockumentary. Not quite found footage, but a faux documentary in the aftermath of this terrible calamity. But Savageland sets itself apart from many of its peers in the sub-genre and in many ways can be evocative of its solidifier, The Blair Witch Project. I was recommended the film by horror artist Trevor Henderson who has often lauded the movie on social media, and after watching it for myself I saw why. A mix of documentary style footage featuring faux interviews and instead of a discovered tape, it’s a camera roll that sheds some clues for the truth. Creating a disturbing atmosphere of nightmarish imagery and theory both mundane and supernatural.
As the story unfolds, one Francisco Salazar (Played by actual photographer Noe Montes) becomes the focal point of the investigation. An undocumented immigrant who lived in Sangre de Cristo as a handyman and amateur photographer. That night, he captured as much of the carnage as he could before being found wandering the desert by a truck driver. Once the police arrived and discovered the aftermath, he was the immediate and only suspect. The documentary frames the sociopolitical outlooks on all sides. From the local sheriff, right wing media, and other Arizonians believing it to be the work of a single disturbed “illegal” to left leaning pundits believing it to be the possible work of hate groups like the KKK. Either way, Salazar is quickly thrown under the bus by the police and government. His trial criticized as a kangaroo court and evidence overlooked. The focal camera roll tossed out as potential evidence and suggested to be fraudulent by authorities despite the contrary. Salazar himself barely in any condition to stand trial, clearly stricken by PTSD and driven nearly to insanity by what he witnessed.
Savageland divulging the major pieces of the puzzle in Salazar’s camera from the night of the attack, and the pictures are nothing short of horrifying. 36 pictures of varying quality that tell their own story. Which the documentary manages to stitch together to form a rough timeline of how the disaster could have unfolded that fateful night. Salazar witnessed a mob of… somethings rush out of the desert and lay siege to the small border town, slaughtering everyone and everything in their wake. Which is the beauty of the film, it tells just enough without painting a clear picture of what exactly these monsters are, where they came from, or what they were doing. The horror is just ambiguous enough to allow viewers to draw to their own nightmarish conclusions.
The attackers appear to be some kind of zombie horde or ghouls, but based on the context, they move fast and were extremely resilient and terrifying. So much so, that several residents of the town were found to have killed themselves rather than be taken by whatever monsters assaulted Sangre de Cristo. One of the only other pieces of evidence arising being a phone call made by a local priest… going mad before he seemingly killed his own family rather than face the beasts barring down the church’s doors.
Which further highlights how the justice system fails Salazar and the victims of this bloody massacre. The pictures were thrown out as evidence and allowing the prosecution to try Salazar on the extremely flimsy theory that he somehow managed to singlehandedly kill all 57 victims himself without a weapon. One of the underlying themes being the more grounded horror of corrupt authority that would rather frame a scapegoat than try and uncover the real reasons behind this horror, or worse, covering it up to keep a state of ignorance. The social and political themes sadly just as, if not more relevant today than they were in 2015. Everything from immigration, class divides, racism, and more are highlighted as underlaying roots in Francisco Salazar’s predicament.
In this modern era of true crime and mystery obsession, a horror movie framed in such a way is perfectly timed for today’s environment. But sadly, Savageland continues to float under the radar much like the context of its own story. But through word of mouth and social media, it seems the tragic story of Sangre de Cristo, Francisco Salazar, and the horrors that came out of the desert continue to gain attention.
Francisco Salazar’s camera roll can be seen in full here. (POSSIBLE SPOILERS)