El Muerto (The Dead One) (2007)

I’m going to continue with my THE CROW studies but there aren’t many actual THE CROW movies to review, so here’s a little bit of a side mission.

EL MUERTO (as it’s called on streaming, THE DEAD ONE on DVD) is a 2007 DTV movie I always assumed was a THE CROW wannabe. It stars Wilmer Valderrama (SUMMER CATCH) as Juan Diego, a guy who’s really into Day of the Dead and on the way to a Day of the Dead celebration (while wearing skull makeup and a mariachi suit decorated with little white bones) he crashes into a tree and is possessed by Aztec gods. Then when he gets to the celebration he sees a shrine to himself and realizes oh shit, I died and a year has passed and now I’ve come back with supernatural powers. Like THE CROW, except different. Adn on his favorite holiday. What the fuck.

Like THE CROW it’s based on an indie comic book, and please note that this is not the same El Muerto that Bad Bunny was gonna play in a movie directed by Jonas Cuaron. That El Muerto is a lucha libre character who’s a villain from Spider-Man, this one comes from El Muerto: The Aztec Zombie, by a guy named Javier Hernandez, who I believe has a cameo in the movie wearing a skeleton costume. He first published it as a xeroxed comic in 1998, which I know because the Wikipedia entry is so detailed it has to have been written either by Hernandez himself or a fan who knows so much about Hernandez it would make him uncomfortable. It lists many influences for his work and none of them are The Crow. And to be fair, all of the pictures I’ve found from the comic book are drawn in a cartoony style that gives a very different feeling from the scratchy, broody, self-serious Crow.

But the movie… yeah, it seems like they probly made the connection that these premises were similar.

In the prologue, young orphan Diego (Darien Dikeos) is among a group of migrants crossing the border when he gets help from a strange old man who leads him to a shrine for the Aztec god of death Mictlantecuhtli, carves a symbol into his hand, then convulses and dies. Awkward. It took me a minute to recognize the character “Old Indian” as Billy Drago (PALE RIDER, INVASION U.S.A., DELTA FORCE 2, MARTIAL LAW II, DEATH RING, LADY DRAGON 2, CYBORG 2, THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake) behind his poncho, long white hair and (dubbed I think?) Mexican accent. But yep, that’s him.

Ten years later grown up Diego is sitting outside brooding about (if I understand correctly) having a new Day of the Dead themed tattoo that he doesn’t remember getting. His wacky best friend and rommate Zak (AVATAR’s Dr. Norm Spellman, himself, Joel David Moore) points out that he’s always been “loco” about Dia de los Muertes, and this may be one of those TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES type things that plays very different when you lift it from a comic book not intended to be taken seriously at all and put it into a live action feature film. The only personality presented is that he’s obsessed with this holiday all year around. Why would that be? How would he have friends? Also, why is it even necessary for the plot, can’t you just explain him wearing Day of the Dead makeup in the afterlife because he was wearing it when he died? The whole thing is befuddling.

He is madly in love with Maria (Angie Cepeda, ENCANTO), whose uncle (Tony Amendola, THE MASK OF ZORRO) is the Padre at the local Catholic mission and disapproves of Diego talking about Aztec stuff. (Okay, I guess he has one interest besides Day of the Dead.) When he comes back from the dead Zak and Maria seem to spend alot of time together, but it doesn’t turn into a love triangle thing. He reveals himself to Zak, who tries to help him do whatever he’s supposed to do.

Diego does end up killing a few people, but mostly wanders around in broad daylight being sad, or talks to people at churches, wondering what’s going on. People don’t react that much to him wearing the makeup except for a pretty good joke where a cashier says “I know who you are” and he worries she knows he’s a zombie but what she means is she thinks he’s dressed as Jack Skellington. Anyway he starts wearing a hoodie to disguise it. I wish he would wear a baseball hat pulled down low and sunglasses, like a celebrity trying not to be noticed in public.

It seems Diego was marked by the Old Indian to become a priest for the Aztec gods and do sacrifices to fulfill a prophecy or whatever. But maybe he’s actually the one who’s supposed to stop them from returning. All he knows is he wants to save his girlfriend.

It’s got quite a supporting cast. The great Michael Parks (THE RETURN OF JOSEY WALES) plays the sheriff, and though it’s not a memorable character at all I do always like seeing him squinting and leaving his mouth open. That sounds condescending but I swear, something about the way he keeps his mouth open, he’s always interesting. Tony Plana (HALF PAST DEAD 1 & 2) plays Aparicio, a caretaker who helps El Muerto; Maria Conchita Alonso (FEAR CITY, PREDATOR 2) plays a nun; and Alfonso Arau (THE WILD BUNCH, EL TOPO, director of LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE) has his name on the opening credits but he’s just the evil voice of the CG character Tezcatlipoca.

I have nothing against Valderrama but unfortunately he does not seem to have enough magnetism to give this low sodium saltine cracker of a character flavor. Also, unfortunately, his makeup just doesn’t look cool. I’m sure the obviously low budget is a factor, but this doesn’t have an ounce of the style or atmosphere of THE CROW, or the amusing crappiness of its other cousin SPAWN, and I think it would need one or the other to work. Without a wave of style to ride on it becomes a big problem how one dimensional this all is even compared to THE CROW. One of the few times it comes alive is when (again, if I understood correctly) this old lady who’s been around, with a rag tied around her head because she got her eyes poked out turns out to also be Billy Drago and possessed by an evil demon or what have you and they have a climactic battle for the world or his soul or something. That was pretty funny.

Otherwise it’s just interesting on paper, as an American horror/comic book type movie that’s based in Latin American mythology and culture. Even if you’re gonna be cynical about representation being a selling point, it wasn’t back then, so this is pretty ahead of its time. But the subject deserves a more exciting movie than this, I think. (You can watch it on Tubi and judge for yourself.)

EL MUERTO is written and directed by Brian Cox, but not the actor from MANHUNTER, I don’t think. This particular Brian Cox directed the movies SCORPION SPRING starring Esai Morales, Ruben Blades, Alfred Molina and Matthew McConaughey, and KEEPIN’ IT REAL starring Kurupt and Tiny Lister. Wikipedia notes that KEEPIN’ IT REAL was “Nominated for Best Screenplay at the DVD Exclusive Awards,” but I looked it up and it lost to the used car comedy SUCKER$.

Wikipedia also refers to EL MUERTO as “award winning,” so I looked into that too. It turns out it won Best Feature Film at the Whittier Film Festival. Hernandez is from Whittier, California so the film is set there. As far as I can tell that was the first and last year they held the festival. Draw your own conclusions.

Despite the accolades in Whittier, Cox didn’t direct again. He did write a few things, like a live action adaptation of the anime KITE that has Samuel L. Jackson in it but didn’t get much of a release (David R. Ellis was gonna direct it but died in his hotel room shortly before filming was going to start).

One of the most accomplished people involved in the movie is cinematographer Steve Yedlin. He had already done Lucky McKee’s MAY, which led to Tobe Hooper’s TOOLBOX MURDERS, and he’d even done BRICK, which was followed by doing all of Rian Johnson’s movies, including THE LAST JEDI. So I guess if this gave him some practice it was worth it.

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8 Responses to “El Muerto (The Dead One) (2007)”

  1. I don’t know why the sentence “Wikipedia notes that KEEPIN’ IT REAL was “Nominated for Best Screenplay at the DVD Exclusive Awards,” but I looked it up and it lost to the used car comedy SUCKER$” made me laugh, but it did.

  2. As I was reading, I confused Tony Amendola for Tony Plana, and then was delighted to discover that Tony Plana is also in this. Because of course he is.

    Looking forward to your review of SUCKER$.

  3. They made a live-action movie of KITE?! And it got a release? I’m sure it’s been sanitized for mainstream audiences and all, but still.

  4. Haha holy shit Sam Jackson was in a live action KITE, fuckin amazing.
    Guessing they addpated the non hardcore porn version.

    Also taking a look at that comic yeah I doubt it was drawing much from the Crow but it looks like it drew a lot from Mike Allred’s Madman, atleast style wise. If it’s half as well written it might be pretty good. Might have to try track it down.

  5. “I have nothing against Valderrama” -My distaste is strong enough for the both of us. A mediocrity who somehow parlayed a one-note joke role into a career and license to hook up with every famous teen girl 4-12 years his junior. Once it becomes a pattern and at 29 you are still messing with teenagers its gross, man (BTW, I don’t remember that off the top of my head or think about Valderamma very much, I just remembered my vague distaste for him and wikipedia quickly provided receipts).

    On the Kite adaptation- the original anime was one of two Original Video Animation productions directed by Yasuomi Umetsu that combined hyper-violent action stories with scenes of hardcore pornography. Apparently it was a way to get more money involved, because the animation and action scenes look amazing. Internationally they were released in censored and uncensored versions. Kite is super fucked up. Its about a teen girl who kills rapists and pedophiles under the orders of a cop who is her “guardian” and has a sexual relationship with her (and I think it turns out he killed her parents in the first place). THAT is supposed to be the character Sam Jackson plays, but from what I was able to make it through in this version he just seems to be involved in illegal weapons dealing. I have no idea why they even bothered making it an adaptation, it could have been one of a million anonymous riffs on The Professional. Instead, they associated it with a notorious anime and then removed the only memorable elements (shock value and slickly animated action).

  6. All these years I’ve lived thinking Wilmer Valderrama starred in one of those Crow sequels, but it was just this film all along. Is this what the Mandela effect feels like?

  7. Yeah, I have no knowledge of this raunchy-sounding KITE, but I have seen the Sam Jackson adaptation, and it is straight off the assembly rack. You’ve seen it before you’ve seen it.

  8. It says something about this movie when the live action version of Kite gets more traction in the comments.

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