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Oliver Stone’s new drug-infused action drama ‘Savaged, in theaters on July 6, shows the rough and dangerous play between smalltime marijuana growers and the sinister Mexican Cartel. Besides Elena, the leader played by Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro’s Lado answers to another sinister mistress: La Santa Muerte, the goddess of death.
Lado’s vocation is to further the Baja Cartel’s business in North America and to solidify La Reina’s powerbase, instilling terror and mayhem as he goes. His cover is an ordinary landscaping company. But when his crew pulls up in its lumbering, battered truck packed with lethal objects, they mean to prune more than the palm trees. He has named his company La Guadaña (“scythe” in Spanish), and an oversize sickle of death—along with chainsaws and axes—looms behind the truck’s cab. On the dashboard sits a figurine of his ominous patron saint, La Santa Muerte.
The beautiful, yet disturbing, Santa Muerte phenomenon has been described as a cult of holy death in Mexico. As production designer Tomás Voth explains, it’s also a darker reinterpretation of Mexico’s veneration for one of the country’s most revered religious icons. He says, “They’ve taken La Virgen de Guadalupe and replaced her with a skeleton, and that’s who they pray to and ask favors of. It’s a mix of Mexican traditions of Día de los Muertos, Catholicism and Caribbean occultism. Believers ask for basic things: protection from death and from fire, but also that they prosper and that bullets hit their mark. I thought it was an incredible representation of Lado and all he stands for.
“That truck became the physical manifestation of Santa Muerte. I filled it with anything that had a sharp shape. Instead of putting the chainsaws inside, I placed them at an angle on the outside so that they cut a silhouette. I wanted the immediate feeling that if that truck is in your driveway, you’d better start praying because it’s all over.”
There is an aspect of the Grand Guignol to Lado, and nowhere was the theatrical macabre more evident than in a downtown warehouse that served as Lado’s den of torture. All manner of torment and agony were on display in the bowels of a rank basement. Elena’s henchman served as ghoulish ringmaster.
“I had to go to a very dark place to create that set,” Voth reflects. “In the script, it is just described as a warehouse, but we thought it had to be more than that: It’s a place where they torture and kill people in extraordinarily ghastly and brutal ways. That’s why I wanted it to be a pit-type construction; there’s no possibility of escape. It felt like a Roman colosseum: People could watch from above and the sides, like an audience watching Christians go to the lions.”
Director Oliver Stone suggested that Lado’s men might have a small moonshine tequila distillery there. Voth explains: “Lado and his team outnumber anyone unfortunate enough to be their prisoner, and they are drunk and celebratory. We thought this might be their hangout—a place where they cook, watch TV and bring women of ill repute—even though the walls and floors are bloodstained from all the killing. It became like something out of Dante’s Inferno. After three days, two days of prepping it and the first day of filming there, I had to get out. My head was going to explode.”
Image Courtesy of Savages