Despite being familiar with the name of the holiday and some of its more superficial signifiers, many people have never actually seen a Day Of The Dead celebration and couldn’t tell you what it looks like. For this, it’s helpful to look to cinema, still one of the best means of conveying imagery of other cultures, societies, and holidays. But even in one of the world’s most popular mediums, representations of the Mexican tradition are rare. Below are six instances of the holiday actually getting its due on celluloid, from being the setting for a spectacular action set piece to the very pivot on which an entire narrative turns.
This post is sponsored by el Jimador Tequila, as part of its Day Of The Dead Special Coverage section.
The Mexican celebration of the deceased got its most high-profile depiction in the latest James Bond. In a single impressive tracking shot, the film’s opening sequence introduces a villain, then follows 007 and a mysterious woman as they thread their way into, through, and above an enormous Day Of The Dead parade in Mexico City. Or, at least, it looked like a single shot—thanks to movie magic, the unobtrusive cuts that fused together several edits are almost impossible to notice. And the magic of a Day Of The Dead celebration needs no CGI at all.
Leave it to Mexican visionary Jorge Gutierrez to finally deliver a proper movie about Day Of The Dead. This animated feature from 2014 not only begins on the holiday, but incorporates much of its mythology, iconography, and history into the narrative itself, the tale of a young man named Manolo (Diego Luna) torn between the demands of his family and the desires of his heart. Along with incorporating Mexican music into the soundtrack, the movie is one of the brightest and most appealing depictions of the culture and its traditions around the holiday.
And sometimes, you just have an excuse to sneak in some bloody violence. American director Robert Rodriguez lives in Texas but shoots many of his projects in Mexico, repeatedly drawn to his past and heritage as the son of Mexican-American parents. In this film, the last of his loosely linked “Mariachi Trilogy,” the village in which the action is set celebrates Day Of The Dead during the climactic sequence, in which the villain Marquez (Gerardo Vigil) attempts to storm the palace; instead, the villagers themselves turn out to be armed allies of the hero (Antonio Banderas), and whip out the weapons they hid beneath the colorful attire. Day of the dead, indeed.
This sequel to cult hit The Crow is historically noteworthy for being one of the first Hollywood action films to try and provide some context for Day Of The Dead, and treat it with respect. Sure, it may be in the context of a rather silly follow-up movie, but it actually takes both the holiday and its traditions seriously. And when the new iteration of The Crow (Vincent Pérez) enters a church to hear about the practices from a priest (Reynaldo Duran), it adds gravitas to an otherwise wholly invented background for the story.
An adaptation of a 1972 Ray Bradbury novel, The Halloween Tree is another example of a film that does right by Day Of The Dead, even if it doesn’t exactly offer the most in-depth look at the tradition. Following four children as they travel through history and learn the different customs and traditions that have derived from what they only know as Halloween, the film reaches its climax when they arrive in Mexico and learn about the Day Of The Dead. It provides some youthful education, even as it deals with the all-too-real topic of death.
Perhaps the most important film on this list, Macario isn’t just a Mexican film that deals heavily with the themes and symbols underlying Day Of The Dead. It’s also an internationally acclaimed film that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1961. The story of a poor woodcutter who meets Death and inevitably his own demise, the movie is an excellent investigation of Mexican tradition—even opening with text explaining Day Of The Dead to foreign audiences.