When Life Imitates (Pop) Art: James Bond and the Día de Muertos Parade

Production design meets tradition: the Día de Muertos sequence during the filming of Spectre (2015)

“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”

- Oscar Wilde

On October 29th, 2016, Mexico City saw its first-ever official Día de Muertos Parade, which involved over 1,200 volunteers, attracted over 250,000 spectators, and proceeded down one of the main avenues of the city: Paseo de la Reforma. Spectators and participants blurred, the streets a wild scene of costumed and painted faces – everyone reveling in the celebratory atmosphere. Although the commemoration of Día de Muertos is widely popular across Mexico, never had such a grand-scale parade been attempted. Where did the idea come from? The first 13 minutes of the James Bond movie Spectre released in 2015.

The action-packed scene in Spectre takes place during a Día de Muertos parade in Mexico City, where the main character blends with the locals using a concealing skull mask in order to track and eventually assassinate a high profile criminal target. Officials within the Mexico City government had sought to attract Sony Pictures Entertainment, the production company responsible for the film – mainly through millions in tax incentives – with the hope of drawing international attention to the city and the Día de Muertos tradition as a strategic means to potentially lure more economically beneficial film production activity and tourism to Mexico City in the years ahead. [1]

The Parade sequence concludes at the Zocalo in Mexico City.

The push to make the fictional parade into a reality resulted from the considerable public interest that followed the film. As Mexican officials explained, “once the movie was released in 67 different countries, the expectation that the city would do something similar started growing among international visitors and locals.” [2] Furthermore, since the city would be hosting the F1 Gran Premio de México over the same weekend as Día de Muertos, officials identified an opportunity for increased tourism and business. The Ministry of Tourism decided to organize the parade and announced that it would become a yearly affair. [3]

Though most Mexicans have received the idea with excitement, there are passionate critics. Those unhappy with the decision are particularly displeased with having one of their country’s most attractive, significant, and historic cultural traditions – one that is even considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO – reshaped by a Hollywood movie and changed from a solemn family affair to, what these detractors consider, a hollow public party. [4]

The situation prompts us to ask, then, what is the proper way for historic cultural traditions to evolve? Or to what extent should they evolve at all?

In this specific case, what we observe is a dialectical phenomenon in which the tradition of Día de Muertos influences a piece of popular culture, which in turn provides feedback and influences the tradition itself. In his 1889 The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde claimed that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” and that this “results not merely from Life's imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.” Now, if this were the case here, the question would be why this particular form of expression (the parade) resonated so positively among government officials, tourists, but, most importantly, locals? One hypothesis is that the “energy” behind the Día de Muertos tradition has expanded into the mainstream in such a way that it requires new artistic forms to satisfy that need of expression mentioned by Wilde. Thus, the screenwriters of Spectre, in their effort to produce a story that was visually appealing for the masses (they may have thought that the Día de Muertos tradition was visually beautiful, but perhaps lacked the grandiosity befitting a James Bond movie), unintentionally provided that ideal new vehicle of expression in the form of a large-scale parade.

Float used in Spectre during the Día de Muertos Parade

This wouldn’t be the first time that the tradition of Día de Muertos has sought new representative forms – not even the first time that a form has been appropriated from popular culture. The celebration has its origins in a series of rituals performed by the different Mesoamerican tribes and civilizations of the Pre-Columbian era. When the Spanish conquered Mexico they tried to eliminate these “pagan” rituals but failed given the strong will of the indigenous populations to maintain them. As a compensating measure, the Spanish incorporated and mixed this tradition with the Catholic commemoration of the Massacre of the Innocents. Although this traces back to the 16th century, one of the most iconic and well-known elements of Día de Muertos, La Catrina, had its origin in the early 20th century. The Mexican cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada created an etching sometime between 1910 and 1913 that critiqued those people who were ashamed of their indigenous origins and dressed in French-style clothes. The image was popularized by muralist Diego Rivera in the 1940’s and, given its morbid aesthetics, was later incorporated into the general imagery of the tradition.

Calavera Catrina (Dapper Skeleton) by Jose Guadalupe Posada

The parade that took place on October 29th, although inspired by the film and using some of its floats and costumes, was far from being a simple reenactment of what viewers saw in Spectre. The parade’s creative directors divided it in three segments: First, “El Viaje a Mictlán” paid homage to the Pre-Columbian origins of the tradition with special attention to the underworld in the Aztec mythology, “Mictlán.” The second part, “La Muerte Niña,” was a representation of the viceregal past of Mexico, incorporating traditional elements like the white shrines from Huaquechula, Puebla. Finally, the “Pa’l Panteón” segment strove to be a representation of the more contemporary way of celebrating Día de Muertos, and it was only during this portion of the parade that the floats and props from Spectre were used. [5] This tripartite design implies that, though Hollywood references and the film’s set pieces were included in the parade, fidelity to the folkloric tradition was a central concern for parade officials.

All these things being said, the case of the Spectre-inspired parade and how it adds to such an old tradition like Día de Muertos proves to be more complex than the anti-mimesis philosophy of Oscar Wilde. Although this parade may be responding to an organic evolution of the holiday’s folklore and its expansion into mainstream interest, the decision was still made arbitrarily by a group of officials in the Mexican government following economic and policy interests. An authentic incorporation of the parade into the broad scope of cultural elements that constitute the Día de Muertos tradition will depend on how much, and in what manner, the locals express and maintain their interest in the added features. At the moment, it seems like Mexicans are already waiting for next year’s parade.



1. http://archivo.eluniversal.com.mx/ciudad-metropoli/2015/perdidas-por-filmacion-spectre-quedaran-contrarrestadastorruco-1089305.html

2. http://www.milenio.com/hey/dia_de_muertos-primer_desfile-spectre-james_bond-007-cdmx-milenio-hey_0_838116371.html

3. http://www.24-horas.mx/tradicion-de-muertos-mas-viva-que-nunca/

4. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/29/day-of-the-dead-parade-james-bond-mexico-city

5. http://laopinion.com/2016/10/29/ciudad-de-mexico-celebra-un-desfile-de-dia-de-muertos-inspirado-en-spectre/

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