Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta, under his silver-masked alias El Santo (The Saint), was and still is the most famous name in the world of Mexican wrestling known as Lucha Libre. Santo was more than a wrestler; he was a comic book hero, pop culture icon, and actor.
Santo made his first appearance in comic books in 1952. The comic books proved so successful that film makers quickly approached Santo to appear in a movie serial called The Man in the Silver Mask. Santo didn’t see much future in movies and declined. The role went to fellow luchador, El Medico Asesino, who wore a white mask very similar to Santo’s silver one. On black and white film, the masks were almost indistinguishable. The plot did, however, include a villain called “The Silver-Masked Man” which allowed the producers to keep the original title.
In 1958, Santo was finally convinced to try his hand at acting by wrestler and actor Fernando Osés. Santo appeared in two films as the sidekick of the star, Osés, who played a hero called El Incognito. Santo’s name didn’t even appear in the opening credits until years later. The films (The Evil Brain and The Infernal Men) did poorly at the box office and Santo didn’t return to films until 1961 when he was not only offered a starring role but was also to have his name in the film’s title.
Santo vs The Zombies (1961) opens by quickly establishing that Santo is not only a world wrestling champion but also an unofficial crime fighter (much like Will Eisner’s Spirit) who is called in by the police chief whenever the police can’t get to the bottom of a case. This time a famous scientist has been kidnapped and is apparently being forced to create an army of radio controlled zombies. After three of these zombies attempt to rob a jewelry store, Santo is called in to investigate. Coincidently enough, the scientist’s daughter has also recruited the wrestler’s help in finding her father. After Santo prevents the abduction of some orphans (to be used as zombie experiments), the zombies’ hooded controller conspires to kill Santo during a scheduled wrestling match. Santo’s opponent in the ring has been turned into a zombie. Despite the zombie’s increased strength, Santo defeats it and the hooded villain uses his radio controls to make the zombie self-destruct. Santo searches the zombie-wrestler’s apartment and is jumped by two more zombies. The zombies almost succeed in (of all things) pulling off Santo’s mask but Santo recovers and drives them off. The hooded villain then sends his zombies to kidnap the scientist’s daughter. Santo discovers the hooded villain’s secret lab and kills him and his henchman, whereupon all of the zombies (including the kidnapped scientist) begin to smoulder, spasm, fall down, and finally disintegrate.
Although Santo was already 41 when he made Santo vs The Zombies, it was only the first of fifty films in which Santo would play a professional wrestler moonlighting as a superhero. The plots were very similar but his foes would change to whatever type of villain was fashionable at the time. When Hammer Studios had success with a Dracula movie, Santo would be fighting vampires (Santo vs. The Vampire Women). When 007, Our Man Flint, and Matt Helm were doing boffo box office, Santo could be seen going up against secret agents and mad scientists (Santo in Operation 67). Science fiction was also within the scope of an El Santo movie with titles like Santo vs. the Martian Invasion and Santo vs. the Living Atom.
At the age of 65, Santo retired from films the same year he retired from wrestling. A year later on a Mexican TV show devoted to wrestling, Santo removed his mask in public for the first time. El Santo was no more and Rodolfo Guzmán died a year later. Tens of thousands of devoted fans made a pilgrimage to his funeral to bid a final goodbye to their saint.