Sunday, June 16, 2024

‘Soldados o Zombies’ creators mix social commentary and zombie fun

Lucas, the nine-year-old son of a Mexican cartel leader, is convinced there’s a shred of humanity remaining in one of his father’s subordinates, “El Perro.” Once, El Perro was Lucas’ designated babysitter. Now he has mysteriously become a growling, inhuman menace who needs to be restrained.

The youth begs him to remember their bygone days of playing with a toy walkie-talkie, but there’s a reason why Lucas’ pleas go unheeded: El Perro has become a zombie.

This is a scene from the surprise hit Amazon Prime TV series Soldados o Zombies, created by Nicolas Entel and Miguel Tejada-Flores. Released last year, it not only landed in the top five new releases on the streaming service in the United States, it was the only non-English-language series to do so.

Its audience reviews on Amazon Prime reflect its popularity.

Still from TV series "Soldados o Zombis"
The show’s explanation for the existence of zombies is rooted in a U.S. military supersoldier experiment with pigs gone horribly wrong.

“Over half loved it,” Tejada-Flores said in a Zoom interview. “They did not think it was going to be good. They want to see a sequel. They gave it the highest possible rating.”

He described the show as “a kick-ass zombie series” with a bit of everything.

“Politics, a jailbreak, narcos, government corruption, evil researchers, a whole lot of [stuff],” Tejada-Flores said. “It’s complex; it’s not your average Walking Dead.”

Soldados o Zombies — also known as S.O.Z. or Narcos vs. Zombies — reflects the increasing flexibility of the zombie genre.

Nicolas Entel and Miguel Tejada-Flores
“Soldados o Zombies” creators Nicolas Entel, left, and Miguel Tejada-Flores, right.

Since the 21st century’s start, the living dead have appeared in formats as diverse as a global outbreak thriller in World War Z, a 16th-century Korean period piece in Kingdom and a teen drama in South Korea’s All of Us are Dead.

Now they’ve made it to the U.S.-Mexico border: in one scene, a zombie pushes through the border wall in what might be Donald Trump’s worst nightmare.

“Many in the Mexican press get the joke,” Entel said. “They appreciate the fact that there are political consequences hidden under this — in a way — very silly show we’re trying to do. People were taken by the idea of America creating a government experiment where all the consequences of the American military are being paid by the Mexicans.”

“Obviously, it’s not a show for everybody,” Entel noted. “It’s a mix of genres. It’s very relevant, irreverent and politically incorrect.”

still from Amazon Prime Video series Soldados o Zombis
The lead role of drug kingpin Alonso Marroquín is played by Mexican stage actor Sergio Peris-Mencheta.

The drama begins on both sides of the border. In Hidalgo County, Texas, United States Army scientist Agustus Snowman is working to create zombie pigs as a first step toward genetically engineering the perfect soldier. Meanwhile, in Chihuahua’s Lomas Altas prison, Lucas’ father Alonso Marroquín plots a jailbreak.

Escaping through tunnels beneath the border wall, Marroquín and his subordinates reach their safe house in the U.S. – a drug rehab center called Paradiso. The Mexican SWAT unit pursuing them is not so lucky, encountering the zombie pigs, with disastrous results.

Others eventually fall prey to the zombies created by this incident – including members of Marroquín’s cartel, such as El Perro.

El Perro is played by veteran actor Silverio Palacios, whose credits include Y tu mamá también and The Legend of Zorro. Up-and-coming child actor Nery Arredondo plays Lucas.

still from Amazon Prime Video series Soldados o Zombis
Mexican actress Fátima Molina as reporter Lilia Acal Prado.

The abovementioned scene involving Lucas and El Perro at the end of episode seven prompted a standing ovation from the cast and crew.

The show has its roots in a conversation Entel — who has written, directed and produced documentaries for Amazon, Netflix and HBO — had with the son of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. While Entel interviewed Escobar’s son for the 2009 documentary Sins of My Father, the younger Escobar remembered how while hiding out with his parents in the Colombian jungle, one of his parents entertained him with a spooky story and a Ouija board.

Entel’s creative juices started flowing. He enlisted the initially reluctant Tejada-Flores, who has an extensive screenwriting background in horror, including the film Screamers.

“He said, ‘Miguel, the title is Narcos vs. Zombies,’” Tejada-Flores recalled. “I go … ‘listo, I’m ready!’ The rest is history.”

still from Amazon Prime Video series Soldados o Zombis
Although the series has a premise based on zombies being created by a zoonotic virus, no connection to the COVID-19 pandemic was intended, says Entel.

Tejada-Flores praised Sergio Peris-Mencheta’s performance as Marroquín.

“He’s a Mexican native and a phenomenal international actor who does theater … You don’t see him in horror or on the horror scene. It’s part of the reason [Marroquín] is a complex character.”

As Tejada-Flores explained, “You can watch Narcos — it’s a good series — but all the real-life narcos are all stereotypes. We wanted to create a character who’s the opposite of a stereotype.”

Although he is a drug dealer, Marroquín is also a loving father who wants to dissuade Lucas from following his violent path. He also gives a heartfelt plea to God while escaping from prison.

Poster for TV series "Soldados o Zombis"
Creator Miguel Tejada-Flores said of his show, Soldados o Zombies, “it’s not your average ‘Walking Dead,’” referring to the popular U.S. zombie TV series.

“Describing him as a drug dealer is like describing Han Solo as somebody who moves merchandise illegally,” Entel said. “Star Wars is not about that. The character is not about that. You need to know that about him because he smuggles Princess Leia home.”

“In the context of Mexico, [Marroquín] is outside the law, he’s tough, he can use a gun — of course he needs to be a drug dealer,” Entel said, adding that he is not trying to “glamorize drug dealers. I suspect people [watching the show] are smarter than that.”

The series addresses key issues in Mexican society: narco violence, immigration, government corruption and freedom of the press — with the latter personified by the character of TV journalist Lilia Acal Prado (Fátima Molina), who pursues an interview with Marroquín at the cost of losing her job.

American characters like Snowman (Toby Schmitz) and DEA agent Joel Taft (Steve Wilcox) are described by Entel as more two-dimensional than their Mexican counterparts — for a reason.

S.O.Z. Soldados o Zombies (2021) | Official Trailer | Amazon Prime Video

Trailer for the Amazon Prime Video series Soldados o Zombies.


“We wanted the Mexicans to be more multidimensional,” Entel said. “We wanted the Americans to be a little more flat and stereotypical … You [usually] see a Mexican guy [portrayed as] very two-dimensional in an American movie.”

The zombies, however, are anything but stereotypical: they share commonalities with insects — the army ants Snowman uses in his experiments. Their speech is based on Náhuatl. Two of them rekindle a romance that began back when they were still human.

In Soldados o Zombies, the zombie infection spreads from pigs to humans, which might make many think of COVID-19 and the idea that the coronavirus spread from animals to humans. However, the show was conceived pre-pandemic. “I wish I could say we saw it coming, [that] we actually anticipated it,” Entel said. “We didn’t.”

Asked about the show’s future, the creators said there are no current plans for a second season. The first season, however, burst expectations like a zombie breaking through the border wall.

“It did much better than anyone expected,” Tejada-Flores said.

Rich Tenorio is a frequent contributor to Mexico News Daily.

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