In 1978 the Guyana-based cultist Jim Jones ordered that his followers commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool Aid, leading to the deaths of nearly 1000 individuals, many of them children. A Powers Boothe headlined TV miniseries, GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES, was made about the tragedy in 1980, but the Mexican GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED (or GUYANA: CRIME OF THE CENTURY) beat it to the punch in 1979.
Its prolific director Rene Cardona Jr. (1939-2003) was the son of the legendary Mexican trash meister Rene Cardona (1906-1988). Between them the Cardonas were responsible for a large portion of the world’s trashiest movies, including SANTA CLAUS (1959), DOCTOR OF DOOM (1963), WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY (1964), NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1969), THE NIGHT OF 1000 CATS (1972), SURVIVE! (1976), TINTORERA: KILLER SHARK (1977), CYCLONE (1978) and dozens more.
The Reverend James Johnson, leader of the California based Johnson’s Temple Congregation, decides to relocate his flock to Guyana in early 1978. The unstated reason for the move is the murder of a politician who was investigating the Temple’s activities, a murder committed by Johnson’s followers.
In Guyana Johnson and his flock construct a community called Johnsontown. The place is a living hell, with its citizenry living in squalid, slave-like conditions and forced to subsist on a starvation-level diet.
Johnson immediately grows suspicious of his congregation, and his suspicions appear to be confirmed when some kids are caught stealing food from his compound. Johnson tortures the kids as punishment.
Despite his apparent altruism, Johnson vows that should he go down his followers will all go with him. Upon learning that the U.S. government is growing suspicious of his activities, Johnson begins staging rehearsals for a mass suicide.
An upstanding congressman named Lee O’Brien decides to visit Johnsontown. Johnson resists the visit but gives in after the senator insists. Johnson allows the senator and a camera crew into Johnsontown, where everyone is directed to act happy. O’Brien isn’t too convinced by the act, and returns the following morning. He offers to take anyone who wants to leave Johnsontown back with him, and several of Johnson’s followers take O’Brien up on the offer.
Unfortunately O’Brien and his charges are ambushed by Johnson-appointed gunmen as they’re boarding their airplanes. Several people are killed in the melee, including O’Brien himself. Back in Johnsontown, James Johnson orders the frequently rehearsed mass suicide of his followers to commence. This entails the drinking of poison-laced Kool-Aid…whether the people want it or not!
To be sure, this film is quite monumental for a Rene Cardona Jr. production, with seemingly hundreds of extras and elaborate production design that captures the look of the real Peoples Temple (see the 2006 documentary JONESTOWN for confirmation). Stuart Whitman does a convincing imitation of Jim Jones, complete with the latter’s ever-present dark glasses, although the oily persuasiveness with which Jones was said to be endowed is never too evident.
This film’s other problems begin with the opening sequence of Whitman lecturing his flock…which drags on for a full ten minutes! Several more lengthy speeches follow, all very boringly staged—although Cardona, being the diehard trashmeister he was, is careful to include a fair amount of violence and bloodshed.
Cardona was evidently marking time until the film’s raison d’etre: the mass suicide. Here all Cardona’s talents as an exploiter come into play, in shots of recalcitrant women and children being force fed the deadly Kool Aid and Whitman depicted as a sort of hallucinatory Satan. It’s a bravura sequence, and a highlight of trash moviemaking. If only the rest of the film were as inspired!
GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED (GUYANA: CRIME OF THE CENTURY)
Director: Rene Cardona Jr.
Producer: Rene Cardona Jr.
Screenplay: Rene Cardona Jr., Carlos Valdemar
Cinematography: Leopoldo Villasenor
Editing: Earl Watson
Cast: Stuart Whitman, Gene Barry, John Ireland, Joseph Cotton, Jennifer Ashley, Yvonne De Carlo, Robert Doqui, Nadiuska, Hugo Stiglitz, Bradford Dillman, Tony Yong, Robert Do Qui