In Mexico, the Día de Muertos tradition celebrates life, but also the travels of the dearly departed. Here are three death-themed Mexican films that prioritize spiritual clarity and cultural education, each in its own unique way.
México Bárbaro (2014, on Netflix) provocatively captures Día de Muertos’ effect on pop culture. The two-hour anthology film addresses Mexican legends and mythology, beginning with a brief and relatively tame short that establishes the cultural context, in which a journalist discovers the Aztec influence on underworld activities. Surprisingly, it’s México Bárbaro’s most flawed productions that feel the most impactful, such as Aaron Soto’s “Drena” (“Drain”). After tampering with a dead body, a young woman smokes a joint and sees a ghoul which threatens to suck the girl’s soul from her backside, but only if she doesn’t fulfill a specific request involving her sister’s menstrual cycle. The narrative premise feels almost laughable, but it taps into a deeper fear that afflicts young women growing up in households with strong spiritual beliefs. Importantly, this short features one of México Bárbaro’s most terrifying images. And GiGi Saul Guerrero’s concluding installment, appropriately titled “Día de los Muertos,” cuts like a knife as exotic dancers wreak havoc on unsuspecting, chest-thumping men.
Similarly, México Bárbaro’s third chapter, “La cosa más preciada” (“The most precious thing”) contrasts situational absurdity with real-life violence. Here, true romance transforms into pure terror when a hyper-sexualized troll interrupts a couple’s cabin retreat. While there’s a comedic effect to the initial troll reveal, the disturbing conclusion reminds of how young Mexican men and women can instantaneously disappear in modern-day Mexico. And for those familiar with Roberto Bolaño’s 2004 novel 2666, the cultural implications of “Lo que importa es lo de adentro” (“What’s important is inside”) and “Muñecas” (“Dolls”) further conjure up visuals of unfathomable 21st-century horror, with their black market and backwoods tourism narratives. Ultimately, México Bárbaro works as both an entertaining horror film and an unnerving addition to the Nuevo Cine de Terror Mexicano.
In contrast to México Bárbaro’s expansive narrative approach, Emiliano Rocha Winter’s We Are the Flesh (2016, on Shudder) features a contained setting. In what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world, a grizzled and visibly perturbed named Mariano (Noé Hernández) prepares for long-term survival, and it’s clear he’s already been alone for quite some time. When a brother and sister appear (María Evoli and Diego Gamaliel), they’re slowly corrupted by the deviant and domineering Mariano, resulting in shocking scenes of sex and violence. By this point, most viewers will likely tune out, as We Are the Flesh seems to revel in its sexualized aesthetic; one particular scene feels like pure exhibitionism. But such moments complement the collective surrealism of We Are the Flesh, and this film showcases a director in touch with a specific vision. Meaning, it doesn’t matter what one hopes to see. Take it or leave it, Winter seems to say. Fortunately, his narrative comes together in the end, as he poses culturally relevant questions about the characters’ backstories and the society in which they live.
For a polished and purely moving Día de Muertos movie experience, check out Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989, on Fandor). Here, the narrative emphasizes the long-term implications of childhood trauma, along with the cultural psychology of relationships based on physical and mental abuse. Starring the director’s son, Axel Jodorowsky, as Fenix, Santa Sangre jumps back and forth in time, and it’s most definitely an Art House film, but the dots connect easily and organically. Over the years, Santa Sangre has been associated with ultra-violence, but the visuals are tame in comparison to the aforementioned México Bárbaro and We Are the Flesh. Crucially, the most disturbing moments (acid-dissolved testicles, severed limbs, a self-inflicted throat slice) imply graphic thoughts without forcing the viewer through an extended sequence.
Whereas México Bárbaro focuses on metaphysics and mythology, Santa Sangre depicts real-life horrors with a Fellini-esque touch. For every aggressive visual, there’s a complementary shot of Fenix (or his mother Concha) suffering in some relatable form. Whereas We Are the Flesh makes the viewer endure sexualized body horror, Santa Sangre builds on that concept for a larger message about life, death, and spirituality. First, however, traditions must be obliterated, most notably when a Roman Catholic priest negates the foundational mythology of Concha’s religious cult. In a sick but important twist, Concha succumbs to the same wounds that her alleged fictional figure endured. And so it goes, past and present intermix, with both men and women seeking spiritual clarity as life continuously cuts them down.
On Día de Muertos, dark memories linger. But it’s our joyous life experiences, the small epiphanies, that make thoughts of death less menacing and slightly easier to process. México Bárbaro, We Are the Flesh, and Santa Sangre all have different messages about interpersonal communication and consequences, but they’re collectively grounded in a shared spirituality that comes from confronting death head-on.