Tuesday 2 November 2021

All Souls Day: Dia de los Muertos (2005)

Director: Jeremy Kasten Writer: Mark A. Altman Stars: Marisa Ramirez, Travis Wester, Nichole Hiltz, Laz Alonso, Mircea Monroe, Jeffrey Combs, Ellie Cornell, Noah Luke, Damien Luvara, David Figlioli, Robert Budaska, Danny Trejo, Laura Harring and David Keith

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

While it doesn’t have a much higher rating on IMDb than Evil Breed: The Legend of Samhain, this low budget film looked a lot better from moment one. Joe Kraemer’s lively score underpins some exotic spellcasting, while the opening credits suggest that we’re not just going to be watching a bunch of new names but a few that we’ll recognise too. I spotted Jeffrey Combs, Danny Trejo and David Keith, for a start. And we soon discover that we’re south of the border, in Santa Bonita, Mexico in 1892, adding an exotic feel, even if it’s really Santa Clarita, California with some colourful costumes to liven it up. Clearly the budget isn’t particularly large, but the Mexican townsfolk actually look like Mexican townsfolk instead of white or Native American actors in brownface and Christopher Duddy’s camera does a pretty good job of making it look like Raoul is struggling through a carnival with whatever he’s found in the local mine rather than just the handful of extras that are thrown his way. It’s some sort of headdress, apparently made of gold.

Unfortunately for him, Danny Trejo is already inside his house, watching him hide that headdress and he promptly talks Raoul into shooting himself in the head, so spilling his blood all over the gold. Trejo is Vargas Diaz and he looks fantastic in period attire, with none of his tattoos visible. He’s gloriously colourful in a waistcoat that’s turqouise on the back and red on the front, fringed in gold and accented by a green tie and tiny blue spectacles. He has a gift for the townsfolk. “Reap the rewards of our discovery,” he tells them, which is of something important located inside the mine, because that’s where he ushers everyone to “Enjoy the celebration, which I know you will remember for the rest of your lives.” Turning towards the camera in truly villainous style, he adds under his breath, “every remaining moment of it”. Sure enough, the next thing we know, there’s a huge explosion and it’s in the entrance to the mine, surely killing every one of the townsfolk or, at least, trapping them inside for a slower, more horrible death.

Then we jump forward sixty years to October 1952. Jeffrey Combs is driving down through Mexico, waiting until he’s almost out of gas because it’s cheaper the further south you go. That turns out to be at Santa Bonita, which unsurprisingly looks emptier than we just left it, and they decide to stop for the night. He’s Thomas White, which ably highlights just how white this all-American family of 1952 is; Thomas and his blonde wife Sarah, blonder daughter Lilly and son Ricky, post polio surgery but still on crutches. Nobody shows up to help, a detail that may have plenty to do with nobody having checked in since 1947 until Thomas does it himself. “For Heaven’s sakes,” he asks, “what is wrong with these people?” Hey, none of them speak English. One of them’s weeping and cleaning up blood. Even Lilly calls her father out on his racism, when he points out that, should they get arrested, they’ll just bribe the police because “that’s what they do down here in Mexico.” The only one even attempting to learn any Spanish is little Ricky.

While Combs and Ellie Cornell, who plays Sarah, have heritage in the horror genre, the latter having played the lead in Halloween 4 and returned for Halloween 5, it’s Mircea Monroe, as Lilly, who gets the death scene. Scared in the bathtub, she’s chased outside in a slip to be confronted by what looks like a Día de Muertos parade and is, in more ways than one. It’s the dead of the town, who have returned for this one night of the year, wearing masks and eager to consume what we presume they see as sacrificial flesh. Ricky is safely inside, grinning through the window alongside an old woman as the walking corpses add to their number. Who knows what happened to Thomas and Sarah; last we saw, they were upstairs stripping off to get jiggy with it, but we’re about to move right on for a second time, this time another 53 years when the couple we see driving south are an interracial couple that just wasn’t on the cards half a century earlier. Alicia is Mexican and her boyfriend Joss is a gringo, on his way to meet her traditional family.

They have quite the arrival to Santa Bonita, because Joss is distracted and so has to slam on to avoid a funeral procession. Not only does the coffin drop to the ground but it spills out a live naked woman, ritually painted and bleeding from the mouth. She writes in the dirt with a stick to explain why she can’t speak: they cut out her tongue so they wouldn’t hear her scream. The most eagle-eyed among the viewers will have quickly figured out what’s going on, of course, not just with regards to this young lady but to why the sheriff is clearly an American: his nametag reads Sheriff Blanco, there’s a Texan flag on his office wall and that’s Lilly White’s photo in the frame on his desk. Technically actor David Keith wasn’t even alive in 1952 but he’s close enough to the right age to make the connection believable. Just in case that isn’t enough, the young lady at the hotel won’t check in Joss until Alicia joins him, but then adds a courtesy bottle of 1892 wine to their stay. And it’s 1st November, the season of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

At least that’s what Alicia calls it and she’s Mexican, but maybe it’s a sign that she’s really Mexican American because that’s actually the American name for the holiday, as what’s called a back-translation. In Mexico, it’s Día de Muertos, and it’s a surprisingly recent national holiday. Sure, there are traditions going back two or three thousand years to celebrate ancestors and there’s also an Aztec festival dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, Lady of the Dead, who was sacrificed as an infant and now rules the underworld, Mictlan, with her husband, Mictlantecutli, but these were often in the summer. Only later did they shift to correspond with Allhallowtide, maybe as the northern states of Mexico had rejected pre-Columbian celebrations as being pagan. Only in the sixties was the result made a national holiday. It’s actually three days of celebration to closely tie to Allhallowtide: All Hallows Eve (or Halloween), All Saints Day (or Día de los Inocentes) and All Souls Day (or Día de Muertos). Remember deceased children on the 1st and adults on the 2nd.

There are lots of traditions associated with Día de Muertos and some of them have crossed the border into Arizona. We have sugar skulls and skeletons and really cool facial make up, not all of which is left over from Halloween. I haven’t seen anyone, even Latinx author friends, writing calaveras literias, or short poems written originally to make fun of death but later politicians, celebrities or other famous people, but I’d love to see that trend pick up. Like many holidays associated with the dead, in Mexico, many families leave food for the spirits as offerings, including pan de muerto or bread of the dead, and there are drinks traditional to the holiday, like atole and champurrado, both masa drinks made with a maize base. Catholics are always fond of building shrines and that bled over to the Day of the Dead, with such families adding photos of deceased relatives to their shrines to the Blessed Virgin Mary or building new ones. Of course, candles aren’t just commonplace to shrines and so are lit everywhere.

In this film, there’s another tradition, because contemporary Santa Bonita is still dealing with the actions of Vargas Diaz way back in 1892 and I’m sure you’ve figured out what that tradition is. If not, Sheriff Blanco soon explains it to the tongueless prisoner he’s locked up in a cell and, when she commits suicide, so avoiding her planned fate, the townsfolk will need another Mexican and you only have one guess at who they plan that to be. Fortunately, when Joss goes to see the sheriff, he sees the corpse, and her tongue in his desk drawer and he realises what’s going on. He even rescues Alicia from her imminent sacrifice in the church, shooting the sheriff in the process, but we know what no sacrifice means and he’s an overconfident gringo who soon discovers just how serious things are about to get in Santa Bonita. At least Alicia now has Tyler and Erica to help, because with Joss’s car undrivable, he called them to come to the rescue and they did.

This isn’t a great movie, but it’s likeable on more levels than just lead characters struggling through a zombie apocalypse. For one, it’s a very focused zombie apocalypse to tie into the Day of the Dead and I like that cultural play. I also like the progression of new visitors to Santa Bonita. The fifties family are stereotypically white and casually racist, even if the kids do show some progressive thought, but the contemporary characters are highly diverse. Joss and Alicia are a mixed race couple and so are Tyler and Erica, as a white woman and a black, presumably Jewish, man. He speaks at least a little Spanish and he’s bright enough to give good answers to dumb questions. For instance, after Joss gets bitten, Erica asks if he’ll turn into a zombie. Tyler replies that, if this were a movie, then yeah, but, because it isn’t, he has no idea. Joss, on the other hand, clearly hasn’t ever watched a zombie movie.

While I’ve technically spoiled a couple of details, there’s never any doubt what happened in Santa Bonita at any point in its history, but it’s really cool to see it explained to our protagonists late in the film through the use of dioramas. Almost every time we see the old lady at the hotel, she’s working on a diorama but we don’t see what it’s depicting, beyond looking freaky. Only later, do we find that she’s documented the entire history of the town in dioramas, a neatly appropriate take on the Mexican shadow boxes that are known as cajitas de muertos, usually featuring skeletons and made for the Day of the Dead. I wonder how many traditions were on display in this movie that I glossed over. I caught the pan de muerto being carried out of one scene, while the tourists were given a very different type of bread that contained bones. Certainly when the dead rise, they parade in a form similar to a Day of the Dead procession, complete with masks, adding a level of irony to the spectacle.

At the end of the day, I find it hard not to like this movie, even though it’s astoundingly predictable. It’s always good to see Jeffrey Combs and Danny Trejo, and their roles are important if not particularly long, David Keith’s being not much more substantial. The lead actress, though, is excellent. She’s Marisa Ramirez and she’s gone on to a decent career on television, if not in the movies, this being her first of only three features. As I write, she’s been on Blue Bloods for eight years and she has leading roles in a whole host of shows behind her now. The other actress I liked here was Laura Harring, who overplays Martia at the hotel outrageously but never without serious effect. She was already noted, in film because of her role as the amnesiac in Mulholland Drive, and out of it for being the first Latina to win Miss USA, among many other talents and experiences; she’s had quite the life. The crew may not have quite matched the cast, but there’s a very effective, if relatively simple, shot with Alicia following a giant pool of receding blood.

I’m actually surprised that there aren’t more horror movies set on Día de Muertos, as it’s one of the most photogenic holidays that the world can boast, but I tend to see it more in animated children’s films or more mainstream pictures like Spectre, the 2015 James Bond flick which famously began during a huge Día de Muertos festival in Mexico City. Ironically, the production invented that, as Mexico City didn’t have such a thing, but the feelings it generated prompted them to start one a year later with an attendance that reached 250,000. That’s an example of the hermeneutical feedback loop or what has been dubbed the pizza effect, when an element of culture is taken elsewhere and transformed but eventually taken back home. Another example would be Halloween pumpkins, a thoroughly American concept adapted from the turnips carved by Celtic people during Beltane but re-exported in their new form to the UK later on as a Halloween thing. I for one adore Día de Muertos and hope to see it in more horror movies.

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