Centuries ago, the Aztec empire of Mexico was conquered by the Spanish conquistadors. Horrified by their religious practices, the Spaniards set out to convert the native population to Catholicism, effectively declaring war upon the Aztec religion. According to an ancient prophecy, the Aztecs and their religion will return to dominance in a time known as the Sixth Sun.
While attempting to illegally cross the United States-Mexico border, young orphan boy Juan Diego is singled out by a fellow traveler, a strange old man known only as "Old Indian" claiming to know the way. The old man leads the boy to an old Aztec shrine dedicated to the god of death, Mictlantecuhtli. Explaining that they must give thanks to Tezcatlipoca, the god of sacrifice, Old Indian proceeds to carve a symbol of the god in to Diego's hand. Declaring the boy's blood to be pure, the Old Indian dies in the throes of invocations of Nahuatl, abandoning the boy in the desert.
Ten years later, 21-year-old Diego has made a home for himself in East Los Angeles. He shares an apartment with his best friend Zak and is in love with Maria, niece of Padre Somera of the local mission which dates back to the Cortés era. However, Diego and Maria's relationship is strained both by his haunting encounter with Old Indian and the devout Padre's disapproval of the young man's sympathy towards Aztec beliefs and mythology. Anticipating a local Dia de los Muertos festival, Diego begins to feel the call of something powerful. He dresses as an undead Mariachi, clad in black with the traditional markings to give himself a skeletal appearance.
En route to the celebration, the forces of the Aztec underworld cause Diego's car to crash, ending his life. Diego awakens in the Aztec afterlife of Mictlan where the god of death sacrifices him to Tezcatlipoca in a ritual where his heart is torn from his chest with the aid of an obsidian blade. He is then sent back to the land of the living exactly one year after his death. Diego, selected long ago by the Old Indian, is the sacrificial priest in service to Tezcatlipoca. In order to fulfill the prophecy of the Sixth Sun, Tezcatlipoca requires three human sacrifices, each symbolizing the Catholic Church that wiped out the old gods over five hundred years ago. And Maria, being the direct descendant of the Somera family is at risk. Armed with the power to take life or restore it, Diego must struggle against the very gods who created him in order to save the woman he loves.Darien Dikeos as Young Juan Diego: While trying to cross the border into the states, a young Juan Diego is singled out by an old Indian man who speaks the Aztec language. The Indian man leads him to a small shrine, performs an ancient ritual, and declares the boy's blood is pure. Soon after, the man goes into convulsions and dies in the violent throes of strange mutterings and invocations.
Billy Drago as The Old Indian/Catrina (Indio Viejo): A strange old Native American man who marks Diego with an Aztec symbol representing Tezcatlipoca and soon after dies.
Wilmer Valderrama as Juan Diego (Diego de la Muerte / El Muerto): Ten years later, a 21-year-old Diego has made a home for himself in the Latino community of East Los Angeles. Diego has fallen in love with Maria, a young lady who is the niece of the padre of the local mission, and whose family goes back to the very first Christian missionaries to settle the southwest. However, Diego's past still haunts him and secretly dreads the thought of his destiny.
Joel David Moore as Zak (Zak Silver): Longtime friend to Diego, who is crushed to hear of his friend's demise, but shocked to find his friend still lives as the walking-dead. Zak is the more skeptical character in the movie, often preferring logic to faith.
Angie Cepeda as Maria Somera (Maria Hermosa): Love interest to Diego and best friend. She is descended from the first Christian missionaries from Spain to settle in the southwest, dating back to the Cortés era.
Tony Amendola as Padre Somera: Father of the local mission and the uncle of Maria. The Padre, a very dogmatic Catholic, would often get into theological debates with Diego who was fascinated by Aztec culture and mythology. Padre Somera's disapproval of Diego placed strain on the couple's relationship.
Tony Plana as The Caretaker (Aparicio): An older Chicano man and caretaker of the local cemetery. He befriends Diego after witnessing his powers and acts as his mentor. The character of Aparicio was the invention of director Brian Cox, which was inspired by a minor character in the original comic book. Hernandez has gone on record saying that Aparicio was his favorite character in the film.
María Conchita Alonso as The Nun (Sister Rosa): A nun of the local mission with an abused past.
Michael Parks as The Sheriff (Sheriff Ezra Stone): A police sheriff investigating recent murders within the Somera mission and strange occurrences surrounding Maria.
The Aztec gods Mictlantecuhtli and Tezcatlipoca were both created through special effects. Mictlantecuhtli was made up of puppetry and other visual effects, being depicted as a giant skeletal figure and speaking entirely in Nahuatl. Tezcatlipoca's depiction was completely computer-generated with his voice supplied by Alfonso Arau (credited as "Voices"). The film also referenced Tezcatlipoca's many epithets, such as Night Drinker.
Javier Hernandez made a cameo appearance in the film in which he has a short conversation with El Muerto, credited as "Man in Costume", while co-producer Susan R. Rodgers appears in an uncredited cameo as a participant in the Dia de los Muertos festival. Rafael Navarro, longtime friend of Hernandez and fellow comic book creator had a brief cameo as a witness of a car wreck inadvertently caused by El Muerto.
One year during the San Diego Comic-Con, Hernandez was interviewed by NPR regarding his comic. A few weeks after, the segment finally aired and caught the attention of director Brian Cox. The director contacted Hernandez and scheduled a meeting in which they talked of the character in depth. At the end of the conversation, Cox asked if he would ever consider El Muerto as a film. A question to which Hernandez responded, "Well, I wouldn't NOT consider it!" Shortly after their meeting, Brian contacted Larry Rattner, a close friend and producer. Coincidentally, Rattner had just met a family that had just come out of a successful publishing venture and were interested in financing a film. Rattner soon convinced them of the potential of an El Muerto film.
A script for the film was written by Brian Cox with Hernandez serving as Associate-Producer. Hernandez was excited to have Valderrama play the lead, stating in an interview, "Wilmer is just drop-dead perfect! Really, it was a lucky break for us getting him to play Diego de la Muerte/El Muerto. He is so completely immersed in the role. For him, it's a chance to play a leading role in a film. And he sees the franchise potential with this character. I mean, he's playing a comic book superhero, how cool is that!?" In the same interview he also praised the supporting cast, saying "The quality of actors should give you an idea about the quality of the script."
The film rights to El Muerto were later purchased by Peninsula Films in May 2003. Valderrama described the film as "The Crow meets Desperado meets Spawn. It's an odd choice for me, but I love making those." He later added, "It's presented in such an odd, hardcore, rad way...very Robert Rodriguez. It's very, very hard. It's a beautiful story told through the eyes of this young guy who's sacrificed in the name of the Aztec gods and he comes back to be a weapon for them. And [instead] he rebels against them and asks all these questions about religion."
Filming officially ended on February 14, 2005. On September 20, 2006, Hernandez announced that the final cut would be privately screened, stating that the film was "officially done":
Valderrama wore different types of make-up including full theatrical make-up, full prosthetic make-up, and was required to wear black contact lenses. Mark Bautista, key make-up for the film, explained the varying types of make-up used and their different levels: "Within the makeup itself, Diego proceeds to go to a party. The party make up is more or less like a theatrical make up - subtle, something you do at home. Once [his] accident occurs this makeup is now cauterized into his face, I wanted to make that makeup almost look scarified."
Much of the costume and dress design followed a strict color palette reflecting the Dia de los Muertos. For Angie Cepeda's character, her colors in rust, gold, marigold, orange colors representative of the marigold from the Dia de los Muertos tradition. Valderrama's costume design was a direct-adaptation from the comic book series with very few changes.
Special effects were used to create both the Aztec gods. While Mictlantecuhtli required visual effects and puppetry by Nathan Mussel, Tezcatlipoca was entirely computer generated and throughout the film he is shown to manifest himself on dark mirrored surfaces. Tezcatlipoca was more prominent to the film's overall plot, and therefore made more appearances in the film than Mictlantecuhtli.
The music and film score were composed by Tony Humecke with Bill Ewart serving as music supervisor. The soundtrack kept to the film's Aztec roots by featuring pre-Hispanic music as performed by Martin Espino. Espino also played a vital role due to his ability to speak the Aztec language of Nahuatl, which can be heard in various chants throughout the film. The soundtrack also featured such tracks as Tierra by Los Nativos, El Troquero by Valerio Longoria, Tolkchoke by En La Orilla De La Utopia, and Nuestra Tierra by Olmeca. All rhythm loops and designs were created by Beta Rhythm Farm.
The first private film-screenings were held in Los Angeles, New York, and the American film market respectively. During this time a trailer for the film, initially intended as a preview for the American film market, was released to the public on various shared-video sites such as YouTube. The film made its official premiere to the public on March 1, 2007 at the Latino Film Festival in San Diego, California. Stars Angie Cepeda and Tony Plana were present at the event as well as creator Javier Hernandez. Subsequent festival screenings included Toronto, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and New York. The latter of which offered a chance to win free tickets.
The film received a full-fledged theatrical premiere at Laemmle Grande Theatre on September 14, 2007 located at its downtown Los Angeles venue. A DVD release was slated for September 18, with Bloodydisgusting.com later having a contest to win a free copy. Another screening was held at the first annual Whittier Film Festival on March 7 of 2008 where it won the Best Feature Film award. Javier Hernandez also hosted a special podcast on his radio show, Planet Comic Book Radio, where listeners were given the chance to win free tickets to the event.
The DVD was released by Echo Bridge Entertainment on September 18, 2007. Despite being titled "El Muerto" throughout its conception and subsequent film screenings, the original DVD release was later re-titled "The Dead One", a loose-translation of El Muerto, for marketing purposes. It is currently being reissued under the film's original title.
Special features include:Seven original illustrations by special guest artists Michael Aushenker, Jason Martin, Rhode Montijo, Rafael Navarro, Ted Seko, Bernyce Talley, and Mort Todd
Commentary with Director Brian Cox and Javier Hernandez
Drawing the Dead art tutorial by Javier Hernandez
Slide-show of the original comic book
Day of the Dead featurette
The Making of "The Dead One"
Fun on the Set of "The Dead One"
A Spanish language track
A DVD-ROM feature
Also included within the DVD case is an exclusive collectible mini-comic created for the DVD and 2 wash-and-wear tattoos.
Mark of Mictlantecuhtli is an exclusive 8-page mini-comic created for the original DVD release by Javier Hernandez and Mort Todd. The short story focuses on the significance of Diego's calavera tattoo, actually an Aztec symbol of death representing Mictlantecuhtli. Mark Bautista, the make-up artist for the film, also makes a cameo appearance in the mini-comic as the tattoo shop owner, Marc.