On the way to an annual Dia de Los Muertos party, Diego (Wilmer Valderrama) is involved in a horrific car crash. Waking from the wreckage and slowly making his way back into town, Diego suddenly discovers that not only has a year of time passed by, but that he is dead. Tormented by skull shattering headaches, a series of unexplained murders and a desperate desire to reunite with the one he loves, Diego finds himself caught up in a supernatural game where in death he may just be an unstoppable demon destined to murder those he was closest to in life.
Based on the underground comic El Muerto by Javier Hernandez, THE DEAD ONE is trying very hard not to be a cross between THE CROW and GHOST RIDER. Sometimes it succeeds, but more often than not it fails. When Diego dies, in full Day of the Dead make-up, he is resurrected still bearing the stark white face, painted eyes and cross centered on his forehead. Dressed in black and striding across the screen it’s nearly impossible to avoid comparisons with Brandon Lee’s immortal performance. Still, it’s unfair to handicap Valderrama with direct comparisons to such a beloved genre icon, and Valderrama is really not the problem with the film.
The film has a few pretty serious flaws. The first is that the production is hamstrung by an obvious lack of budget. What money director Brain Cox had, he clearly spent hiring an assortment of notable Hispanic actors, including Maria Conchita Alonso (THE RUNNING MAN), Tony Plana (SLAYER), Tony Amendola (STARGATE SG-1) and even distinguished Writer/Director/Actor Alfonso Arau (LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE), although Arau only contributes “voices” to the film.
Where the production really suffers is in its overall look. The film takes place mainly between a graveyard and a local church. Using locations should have added to the films quality but the cinematography is flat and the camera angles so static that it feels like we’re watching a telenovela instead of a feature film about a superhero. The whole production seems to be screaming out “Where’s the action?”
The second problem comes from the script. The film opens with a slight backstory, introducing the character of Diego as a child and an old Indian man (Played by Billy Drago). The scene takes place when Diego was a child, obviously crossing the border from Mexico into southern California. This movement offered a lot of opportunity for character development and even social commentary but it ultimately serves only to define the connection between Diego and the character played by Drago—who reappears later as an unconvincing elderly woman! The lack of emotional depth in this scene is an issue carried throughout the film. Diego’s overriding motivation is simply to get back to the girl he left behind (Angie Cepeda). In addition, his best friend (Joel Moore of HATCHET) is still mourning his loss. But I didn’t buy the connection with either one. Diego doesn’t really seem to care much at all about the people that loved him then, or the people—like Tony Plana’s character Aparicio—who are trying to help him now. He’s too caught up on some kind of postmortal angst trip and it starts to get real old after about a half hour.
Another problem starts before the opening credits even crawl. While the title THE DEAD ONE has a lot of promise for some film, this one is not it. Changing the title from EL MUERTO is a step in the wrong direction for branding audiences with a new comic book icon. If everyone is concerned about American audiences shying away from a Spanish title, then they missed the opportunity to simply title the film EL MUERTO: THE DEAD ONE. Marketing issues aside, this change underscores the overriding problem—the people involved in the creation of this motion picture seem ill-equipped to translate the source material to the screen in a compelling manner.
It seems like the crew that put this film together just didn’t know what they had and that’s a shame, because with a cool—albeit derivative—look and a concrete storyline this film could have really helped break out a new underground hero, and one that could really serve an under-represented population in the Hollywood marketplace. It’s safe to say that I very much wanted to like THE DEAD ONE, but the filmmakers involved just didn’t have their A-game on and it really shows.