Coco is one of the most beautiful animated movies in recent years. Its gorgeous imagery captured the hearts of audiences around the world and dominated the box office, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the hefty budget provided by Disney and Pixar.
Still, a few other movies with much smaller budgets have also managed to portray the essence and magic of the Day of the Dead celebration. They show that this Mexican holiday is much more than just a colorful party: it’s a spiritual ritual with a unique connection to the afterlife.
La Leyenda de la Nahuala (2007) – Ricardo Anaiz
This Mexican film tells the story of Leo San Juan in the year of 1807, when Mexico was still New Spain, a Spanish colony. Leo is trying to discover the truth about the Nahuala legend that his brother Nando told him about. Then, in an unexpected turn of events, Nando is captured by the Nahuala, and it’s up to Leo to rescue him in the underworld, aided by a few saints and supernatural creatures that he finds along the way. When the mystery is revealed and the Nahuala is not an evil being anymore, everyone -both human and supernatural- celebrates Day of the Dead in harmony.
The Book of Life (2014) – Jorge Gutiérrez
This movie depicts traditions, such as the Land of the Dead, the Land of the Forgotten, and the Catrina. The governors of these lands, along with the Catrina, bet on three mortals: María, Manolo, and Joaquín, who will be the protagonists of a love triangle that threatens the world of beyond with feelings like love, resentment, hate, and betrayal. The three characters must figure out their predicament, so that all the realms -both earthly and spiritual- can also be at peace.
Hasta los huesos (2002) – René Castillo
This short film starts with the burial of an unknown character, who begins his descent to the underworld along with the viewer. Catrinas, fiestas, songs, and flowers are only some of the things we can see in this short yet moving film by René Castillo. Also, in addition to the traditional Day of the Dead elements, the movie contains references to ancient cultures, like the legend of “La Llorona.”
Day of the Dead (2013) – Ashley Graham, Kate Reynolds, and Lindsey St. Pierre
A young girl visits her mother’s tomb at the cemetery, and as she begins to cry, she sees a beautiful flower sprouting from the ground that takes her to the land of the dead, with mariachis, lights, decorations, dancing skeletons, balloons, and piñatas. It is all part of a beautiful spectacle that overwhelms the little girl until she finally finds her mother and hugs her.
In only a few minutes, this short film portrays all the symbolism and magic of Day of the Dead in a single gesture.
The Aztec Mummy (1953) – Rafael Portillo
An ancient mummy’s tomb is desecrated, so it wakes up from its long slumber to take back the artifacts stolen by a group of scientists. Through their battle against the mummy, we can see the dark side of the land of the dead, which has nothing to do with celebrating or colors; it’s all about the darkness where souls wander.
This film is not remembered as a classic Day of the Dead film because that isn’t its main purpose, but it still captures the holiday’s traditions faithfully.
Macario (1960) – Roberto Gavaldón
Macario is a poor lumberjack with many children, whose only dream in life is to eat a whole turkey by himself one day without having to share with anyone. To be satisfied for once in his life. His wife, seeing that Macario wakes up feeling miserable every day, steals a turkey and makes his dream come true, telling him to go into the forest and eat the turkey by himself.
But along the way, God appears in front of Macario and asks him for a piece of the turkey, which Macario refuses. Then comes the Devil, but Macario refuses to share his turkey as well. Finally, Death shows up, and Macario chooses to give away half of his turkey with it, thinking that they can both eat at the same time. What follows is one of the most complex, dramatic plot twists you’ve ever seen, which makes it one of the best movies in Mexican cinema.
Coco is a beautiful movie full of dizzying colors and heartwarming songs. However, it is still plagued by the same Mexican stereotypes we see all over mainstream productions. The real traditions are in these movies.