As a longtime denizen of the Southwest, the traditions of Mexico run heavy, and my favorite has to be Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. What better way to kick off November, and wind down from Halloween than with skeleton-themed cosplay and parties in a graveyard!
There is actually more to it than that, but for my story purpose, I’ll keep it brief.
Here’s the dime store low-down on what Day of the Dead is, for those still not sure: “Dia de Los Muertos” is Latin America’s answer to All Soul’s Day. In Mexico, Dia De Los Muertos has been part of the Mexican cultural landscape for at least 3,000 years, and has elements of both the “pre-Hispanic” indigenous cultures who displayed various items during certain rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. It is also infused with Christian elements, particularly as it falls at the time of the Catholic observance All Saint’s Day on Nov. 1 in honor of all saints, known and unknown and All Soul’s Day, Nov. 2, the Catholic celebration of the faithful departed.
Some of the most powerful imagery that floats around includes the “Calaveras” (skeletons), and “Calacas” (skulls), and can be found on items like “Pan de Muerto,” a pastry served during the observance, as part of elaborate costuming and face-painting (like those in Catrina Balls), cut in to tissue paper decorations known as “Papel Picado” or in the form of sugar skulls placed on home-made altars in cemeteries and community centers that honor a departed loved one or historic figure.
See, the key is really as long as there is someone to remember your name you are never truly gone from this earth. Both sweet and a little eerie, but it makes for a really cool party.
Got the basics? Good. Now for the fun part —Day of the Dead-style imagery can be found through the geeky realm of pop culture, and I’ve put together some of the best places to find it.
The Crow: City of Angels. Admittedly, this 1996 follow-up to the original Brandon Lee film was pretty lame in comparison, but it takes place in Los Angeles during the Day of the Dead celebrations with a pretty cool processional scene that captures the mix of celebration and mourning.
Corpse Bride. “Nightmare Before Christmas” may be more famous, this stop-motion animation Tim Burton film really nails the Day of the Dead psyche. The dead are celebratory and lively, while the living are morose, colorless and downright unhealthy. Worth a watch for the Danny Elfman-voiced Mr. Bonejangles character, if for no other reason.
Princess and The Frog: Not really Day of the Dead, but with New Orleans’s history of All Saints Day and Voodoo culture, this movie’s Dr. Facilier has been given a terrific look, complete with the skeletal face paint. Also, the animators did a great job with the stylized voodoo and skull symbols around his office “lair.”
“El Muerto: The Aztec Zombie.” Javier Hernandez’s hero debuted in 1998, and follows the exploits of Diego de la Muerte, who was abducted and sacrificed to Aztec gods on his way to a So-Cal Day of the Dead event. He returned a year later with supernatural abilities including regenerative healing and the power to give…or take life. Much of Hernandez’s work is in itself a cool shout-out to Day of the Dead, and “El Muerto” has built up quite a cult following. It was even made into a schlocky horror directed by Brian Cox in 2007 starring Wilmer Valderrama in the title role. Apparently, when the chosen one arises on Day of the Dead it will be…Handy Manny? Hernandez’s comics, and the movie can be purchased through his official webshop at loscomex.storenvy.com.
Sergio Argones’s “Dia de los Muertos.” In 1998, Argones (“Groo,” Mad Magazine) and Mark Evanier put out this Dark Horse humor one-shot poking fun at the American fascination with this centuries old tradition. It’s actually pretty educational, too. Not that easy to find, but you might be able to pick up a digital copy from Dark Horse or best bet peruse those discount comic bins.
Black Star Fiction Library’s #2: This UK comic company’s comics set in Big Star City’s second issue took place during Dia de Los Muertos. Interesting to see European take on this observance. The issue, written and drawn by Shaky Kane, was released in August and might still be out and about on the indie comic shelves.
Other images of note:
Grim Fandango (video game): LucasArt put out this film-noir meets Day of the Dead game in 1998 following the adventures in the happy afterworld. Great visuals, quirky humor and fun little story make this one worthwhile as it isn’t particularly challenging. If you can still find a copy of it used somewhere.
Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” (CD): The name says it all. Great song and great album by the Danny Elfman-fronted band, but the cover photo of the kitschy, garishly colored party-hardy skeletons on this is so perfect for the occasion. It is exactly the like the little dioramas I see in every curio and tourist trap around these parts, but it is so fun you can’t help but want one!
Los Lobos’ La Pistola y Corazon” (CD) Even if you are not into this band’s style of music, this is one of the coolest paintings to adorn an album cover. This pair of Mexican lovers in true skeletal form is a perfect example of the costuming often accustomed with Catrina Balls. I was able to see the actual painting of this by L.A. artist George Yepes with Cheech Marin’s traveling Chicano art exhibit a few years back, and it is amazing in its original glory.
FYI: Yepes’s incredible work can be seen in some of Texas director Robert Rodriguez’s films, more recently in “Machete.” An ideal Day of the Dead-style image is his portrait “Shotgun Messenger” used in the funeral procession in “One Upon A Time in Mexico.”
Geeky Papel Picado
Now that we’ve explored some of the imagery, it’s time to create your own simple papel picado decoration to hang up year-round! Usually, these designs are mega-elaborate, but I’ve simplified them to easy paper-doll status for beginners, using two of my favorite geeky “Calacas” patterns — The Punisher’s symbol and Hydra logo.
Print the attached templates out and fold a 8” x 11’ piece of tissue paper in half as you would a Valentine, then gently cut over the pattern with an X-acto style knife or small scissors.
Now hang it up and consider yourself cultured.