REVIEW: Juan of the Dead (2012)
Cuba may be still under the thumb of Communism, but when the island nation is besieged by a zombie outbreak, Juan and his friends realize now is a good time for some old fashioned Capitalism. Need some zombies slain? Undead friends and family you can’t bring yourself to finish off? If you’re in the Havana area, just call “Juan of the Dead” for all your zombie-killing needs.
Juan of the Dead touts itself as Cuba’s first-ever horror movie. Given how slyly subversive the film sometimes is, it’ll be amazing if it doesn’t end up being the last. When the zombie outbreak begins, many don’t even notice because that’s just how bad things are in Cuba. State television initially claims that the zombies are actually American dissidents trying to stir up trouble against the Communist government and continues to insist all is well even as the country goes to hell. The ending is practically a call-to-arms encouraging Cubans not to flee their home country but to stay behind and fight. That the filmmakers didn’t get into any hot water is a sign that either the film’s revolutionary political subtext went over the heads of the Cuban government or at this point a zombie comedy riddled with anti-Castro regime sentiment doesn’t faze them like it might have in the past. Either way, there’s more going on here than just another screwball zombedy.
But a screwball zombedy this is, and you’ll easily recognize from where writer-director Alejandro Brugues draws his inspiration. The Shaun of the Dead comparisons go without saying, and in moments like when a priestly character utters the line “I kick ass for the Lord” there’s absolutely no mistaking what other movies are serving as his muse. Thanks in large part to the unique locales of Havana, the satirical political subtext, some inventive zombie slaying methods, and more than a few big laughs, Brugues’ scrappy little Cuban zombie comedy rightfully earns its place amongst the better offerings this over-saturated subgenre has produced in recent years.
Juan himself is played with caddish aplomb by Alexis Diaz de Villegas. More street smart than book smart, a con man always looking for a quick buck, a ladies' man despite not really looking like he’s all that, the guy who tends to do the wrong thing even as he thinks he’s doing the right thing. Juan desperately needs money, or else he may never see his teenage daughter, Camila, ever again as she prepares to leave Cuba forever with her Spanish mother. As the population starts turning into zombies, many Cubans try fleeing to America on makeshift boats and others go into hiding. Not Juan; he gathers together a motley crew of working stiffs and decides to try and make some dinero killing actual stiffs.
At the heart of Juan of the Dead is a tale of impoverished people living in an oppressed society just trying to make better lives for themselves. They just happen to do so by hacking, slashing, and blasting zombies with machetes, knives, slingshots, spearguns, oars, boards, pipes, large rocks, and whatever else they can get their hands on in the streets of Havana. This is probably the closest the world is ever going get to an actual Dead Island motion picture.
On a technical level, this movie shot in a third world country looks better than most low budget movies shot in the US. The zombie make-up is pretty good given how obviously low the budget is. Even some moments of less-than-believable CGI work in its favor, adding to the by-the-bootstraps comic book/video game aesthetic hammered home during the movie’s closing credits. Some of the splatter, disappointingly, is purely computer generated, though rarely to such a degree as to completely spoil the moment.
Juan of the Dead has been getting heaped with praise for months now since it began making the film festival rounds. There’s always a danger for little indie movies like this to get over-hyped, and that’s a fear I have here because this is not a perfect movie or even close to being a masterpiece of the genre by any stretch of the imagination. On more than one occasion the plot introduced new characters that looked to completely change the direction of the story only for that to go nowhere. Some of the humor does indeed fall flat (a running gag about a hulking bodybuilder who faints at the sight of blood gets old real fast). It’s just a fun and often hilarious film that puts a fairly fresh spin on highly familiar material and does so with more bubbling just beneath its surface than mere flesh-eating walking corpses on the rampage.
Heck, even if the rest of the movie stunk, Juan of the Dead would still deserve high praise for boasting one of the greatest mass zombie killing scenes in the history of the zombie cinema. You have to see the movie if only for this one incredible scene involving a jeep and a harpoon gun.