It happens to everyone: You’re in the middle of production, and suddenly realize you need a dead body for a grisly murder scene. Also, it needs to be missing an arm.
Death Dealer Props has your back. And other parts. The prop shop’s co-founders, Vicente J. Morales and Manuel Valladares, make custom dead bodies — as well as skeletons, limbs, and organs — on the tightest of deadlines. And they love problem-solving.
“There is a niche for, ‘I need a dead body. I need it now. I don’t know where to get it,'” Morales says. “The problem is that a lot of the prop houses, they have fruit, they have buffalo heads, they have anything you need, taxidermy — but they’re like a supermarket… they don’t make them, they just either buy them or source them.”
How Death Dealer Props Began
Death Dealer Props first opened its doors in the Los Angeles market in April 2022, and Valladares and Morales have been doing steady business ever since. To save on overhead, they offer in-person visits to their brick-and-mortar shop front by appointment only. It gives them more flexibility to do the custom work their customers depend on.
“We’re pretty fast,” Morales says.
And they’re happy to make custom bodies from scratch, he adds: “You can tell us the skin tone, eye color — everything about a body, short of hair.”
Recent projects that Death Dealer Props have contributed to include CTRL ALT DEL, directed by Kit Williamson and starring Elsie Fischer and Jason Priestly; The Threshing, a feature supported by MovieMaker Production Services directed by Sean Mannion; “The Gateway Drug,” a short written and directed by Andy Chen, and a short called “Hog” directed by Gabriel P. Gonzales.
“With us, you can literally come up to me and be like, ‘Oh, I need a body that needs to float for a whodunnit. Can you do that?'” Morales says. “And I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s see if we can.'”
Morales and Valladares don’t limit themselves to a certain client base, either. They’re open to everyone from student productions to larger studio work. And they’ll rarely turn a customer away because of the complexity of the project.
“Sometimes in other shops, they want to keep production the way it is because they feel that — and this is my own perception of it — if they spend time problem solving, that problem solving isn’t what they’re getting paid for,” he says.
“For us, we’re like, ‘Well, that sounds like an interesting problem. Let’s see if we can actually figure it out with what we’ve got.’ We present it to the client, and if it is within their budget to do it and our capability, we want to go ahead with it.”
He adds: “We’re very accessible to the client’s, or the artist’s, vision about what they want. But also, what we really are is truthful about our abilities.”
Morales and Valladares met almost ten years ago when they were working at another Hollywood prop shop. Morales moved up to the role of fabricator, or prop-maker, alongside Valladares. They became fast friends and would often spend their lunch hour dreaming up ideas for their own props.
When their previous boss had to relocate his business to a different state, Morales had a light-bulb moment.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I’m getting tired of making other people’s stuff,'” he remembers thinking. “This is one of those things that you never really think somebody’s gonna respond to you in the affirmative and be like, ‘Oh, that sounds like a good idea, what do you have in mind?'”
But Morales decided to float his business idea to Valladares anyway.
“I told him, and he said, ‘You know what? Maybe we could.’ That was the whole genesis… we were just having lunch one day and decided we’d do it on our own.”
The two prop specialists started gathering their resources to start their shop — but they hit a roadblock along the way.
“We started laying the groundwork for it. We got the molds, and we got live cast models, and we had vendors that gave us all the raw materials and stuff like that, but I think it just wasn’t the right moment for us. So I had to get off the path we were on. We went our separate ways,” Morales said. “And then COVID happened and I had a lot of time to sit around and think about things.”
When someone reached out to Morales on Facebook asking if they could borrow a severed arm, he was inspired to reach out to Valladares again.
“That little conversation blossomed into, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about trying it again?’ And he said, ‘You know what, I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I think we should.”
You can reach Death Dealer Props at DeathDealerProps.com.
Main Image: (L-R) Manuel Valladares and Vicente J. Morales in their studio. Photo Credit: Ben Zion Jackson